A Skeptical Look at the Rorschach Test
Most consider the famous inkblot test to be a window to the subconscious. Is it?
by Brian Dunning
December 15, 2015
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A Rorschach inkblot.
(Public domain image)
You've seen it in pop culture a thousand times: A psychologist holds up a card showing an inkblot, and a subject says what it looks like. From this, the famous (or infamous) Rorschach Inkblot Test, it's said to be possible to make accurate psychological diagnoses, to uncover deep personality traits, and even to predict future behavior. But how much of this is mere Hollywood, how much is actual sound psychology, and is any of it unadulterated pseudoscience?
Well, we hope to find that it's sound. A 2003 book critical of the test advises:
...The Rorschach is still administered hundreds of thousands of times each year in clinics, courts, and schools. Psychologists often use the test to help courts determine which parent should be granted custody of a child. It’s used in schools to identify children’s emotional problems, and in prisons to evaluate felons for parole. Convicted murderers facing the death penalty, suspected victims of sexual abuse, airline pilots suspended from their jobs for alcohol abuse — all may be given the Rorschach by a psychologist who will use the test to make critical decisions about their lives.
So let's have a look. The test was the brainchild of Swiss doctor Hermann Rorschach, whose most popular photo looks exactly like Brad Pitt. As a boy he enjoyed klecksography, an art form where you dribble wet ink onto a paper then fold it in half to form an image whose two halves mirror one another. The game is then to take a pen and complete a drawing of whatever image the klecksograph suggests. Throughout his medical and psychiatric studies, Rorschach became interested in why different people saw different things in these images. In 1921 he published his ideas in his book Psychodiagnostik, but unfortunately died only a year later at the age of 37.
But his technique had caught on, and by the middle of the twentieth century it was widely used around the world, so much so in fact that there were at least five different systems for scoring responses. Many psychologists didn't use any scoring system at all, but went on their own personal assessment of the subjects' responses. Then in the 1960s, Dr. John Exner became arguably the father of the modern Rorschach test. He took all these various forms of the test, discarded the scoring methods that weren't backed up by any good research, and consolidated those that were. The Exner scoring system has continued to be refined a number of times over the years since, and remains the gold standard for how the test should be administered.
There are ten cards — standardized worldwide — five in black and white, and five in colors. All are mirror-image klecksographs.
In psychology terms, the Rorschach test is what's called a projective technique. That's important, because the weaknesses of the Rorschach test that we're going to discuss generally apply to all projective techniques. Projective methods give the subject an ambiguous stimulus, such as one of Rorschach's inkblots, and ask them to interpret it. The answer could be anything at all, whatever is on the subject's mind; leaving the analyst to, in turn, interpret that interpretation. It's called a projective technique based on Sigmund Freud's 1911 concept of projection, which theorizes that we all unconsciously project our own weaknesses onto others. For example, if I dislike my own tendency to be shy, I might unconsciously seek out shyness in others and deride them for it. Projective techniques hope that the subject will identify in the ambiguous stimulus — and verbalize — something that he unconsciously sees in himself.
To see how this works, let's follow along with how the test is given. The examiner shows each card and asks "What might this be?" and the subject is encouraged to think about it and discuss out loud, and can often go on at length. But the main part of the assessment comes next. The examiner goes through each of the ten cards again, this time asking the subject to explain in detail how and why he saw each image in each card. They discuss the colors, the shading, the contours. It is not the initial "It looks like a butterfly" that is telling, but rather the later detailed explanation of what qualities a butterfly might have that are represented on the card. Everything the subject says is recorded, and then analysis and scoring happens later, based on the subject's recorded statements. The idea (in oversimplified and thus inaccurate broad strokes) is that whatever qualities in the inkblot the subject focused on — that made him think of qualities in a butterfly — are his own projected subconscious self-assessment.
Although the test is still used by some psychologists, projective techniques have been surrounded by an aura of skepticism for some decades. Psychology has never been one of the more exact sciences, but the vagary of free response to an ambiguous stimulus takes it to a new level. It's entirely possible that an artistic serial killer will speak at length about the beauty of the butterfly he sees, while a dull but harmless accountant may simply say that it looks like a knife. It turns out that projective techniques rest on a foundation that is considered by modern psychology to have always been a bit shaky.
The Rorschach comes from a time when the state of psychological science was based not on a large body of research, but rather upon "big ideas" coming from a few radical thinkers like Freud, Pavlov, Nietzsche, and Jung. It was the era of psychoanalysis, the id, the superego, the superconscious, the superman, and the Oedipus complex. These are the same ideas that dominate pop-culture psychology — the version that flourishes in Hollywood depictions — but that long ago left the laboratory. An apt headline from the New York Times in 2007 illustrates the chasm separating the real science from the public perception of it: "Freud Is Widely Taught at Universities, Except in the Psychology Department".
Just think how many times in the movies you've seen the Rorschach test or that other perennial favorite pop-culture analysis technique: Jung's "word association" test, where the subject replies with the first word that comes to mind following trigger words given by the analyst. It's fast food, sound bite psychology.
The key to the popularity of the Rorschach test can be found by studying its history. Although it was developed in the 1920s, it didn't enjoy a lot of popularity until the 1940s and 1950s, when it exploded onto the world stage. And by world stage, I mean that literally. Proponents of the test gave public readings in front of audiences of their colleagues. Subjects were given the tests offline, and then these proponents — having only basic knowledge of who the subject might be — would read the responses and make incredibly detailed and accurate personality assessments. It was highly reminiscent of stage psychics that we see today. The effect of this was to deeply root a belief among the public — which persists today — that the Rorschach is capable of divining a person's deepest secrets and laying them bare; an X-ray into the soul. This perception is what ultimately led to its modern popularity. Surely, such astonishing readings must be the result of a powerful analytical technique.
For a long time, Dr. Scott Lilienfeld has been a vocal critic of pseudoscience in psychology. He and his co-authors examined this stage of the Rorschach's history in their book What’s Wrong with the Rorschach: Science Confronts the Controversial Inkblot Test. You may have already been able to guess what they found. My mention of stage psychics a moment ago was not by chance; it turns out that a surprisingly effective Rorschach analysis can be given by using the exact same cold reading techniques that psychics use. Having full access to the subject's verbal response gives an enormous amount of insight. The authors cited these snippets from an actual published Rorschach response:
The two little central humps at the top suggest a sine curve...
This reminds me of blood and the black of ink, carbon and the structure of graphite...
I'm reminded of [Salvador] Dalí's watches...
Obviously, this is an educated man. Knowledgeable about math, chemistry, and art. It was, in fact, the molecular biologist Linus Pauling. In other cases the subject may come to the psychologist from inpatient care, in which case the psychologist already automatically knows that this patient suffers from a severe pathology. One can scarcely conceive of a case — where basic information about the subject is known and the subject answers questions about his observations and reasoning at length — that would NOT give us a huge amount of insight into that person. This is not merely cold reading, nor even warm reading, but what the mentalist profession terms a hot reading, which is where substantial information about that person has been provided.
This fundamental weakness of the Rorschach test has been well known in the profession for a long time. As early as 1948, an article was published by Wittenborn and Sarason from Yale University called "Exceptions to Certain Rorschach Criteria of Pathology". They noted that these superstar Rorschach analysts routinely used three tricks, all of which are verbatim from the stage psychic's handbook:
...The practice of ex post facto deduction whereby some clinical psychologists, when told about some clinically important features of a patient, say, "Ah, yes. We see indications of it here, and here, and here". Another practice...is the use of ambiguous phrases or esoteric Rorschach cliches which can be given almost any specific interpretation which subsequent developments may require. A less artful, but nevertheless effective practice, involves including in the interpretations widely separated statements which can have an almost contradictory implication; one or the other of these statements may be employed according to the requirements of the circumstances.
In short, filling the analysis with enough ambiguity that it can then be interpreted to exactly match the known facts of the case. Just like today's celebrity psychics.
Yet, while it's a virtual certainty that some people, at some point and for some reason, have deliberately used trickery to give impressive Rorschach analyses, it's equally likely that the vast majority do not. As is the case with psychics, most Rorschach analysts who use cold reading techniques aren't aware that's what they're doing.
So is there any valid use for the Rorschach? Yes, there is, but it's not in diagnostics. It is a fine ice breaker, a starting point for conversation in psychotherapy. In cases where it may still be used to actually make decisions about people (employers, schools, courts), it is a dinosaur and should be retired for lack of scientific foundation. But don't expect to see it retired from Hollywood anytime soon: it's fast, it's visual, and it makes for great cinema psychology. And that is perhaps the realm where it best belongs.
By Brian Dunning
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Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "A Skeptical Look at the Rorschach Test." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
15 Dec 2015. Web.
27 Feb 2017. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4497>
References & Further Reading
Furnham, A. "Projective Techniques." Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers, LLC, 10 Mar. 2014. Web. 4 Dec. 2015. <https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/sideways-view/201403/projective-techniques>
Goode, E. "Defying Psychiatric Wisdom, These Skeptics Say Prove It." The New York Times. 9 Mar. 2004, Newspaper.
Jung, C. "The Association Method." American Journal of Psychology. 1 Apr. 1910, Volume 21, Number 2: 219-269.
Wittenborn, J., Sarason, S. "Exceptions to certain Rorschach criteria of pathology." Journal of Consulting Psychology. 1 Feb. 1949, Volume 13, Number 1: 21-27.
Wood, J., Nezworski, T., Lilienfeld, S., Garb, H. What’s Wrong With the Rorschach? Science Confronts the Controversial Inkblot Test. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003.
Zubin, J. "Failures of the Rorschach technique." Journal of Projective Techniques. 1 Jan. 1954, Volume 18, Issue 3: 303-315.
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