What do you see?

Spilling the truth on the Rorschach inkblot test and how it took psy­chol­ogy into the main­stream

All About History - - CONTENTS - Smith Writ­ten by Mark

Spilling the truth on the Rorschach inkblot test’s ori­gins

Whether we see two bow­ing wait­ers or a pray­ing man­tis, a gi­ant moth or a sin­is­ter hooded fig­ure, many of us at one time or an­other will have had our own dis­tinct take on the strik­ing im­agery found in a Rorschach test. Cre­ated in 1921 by Swiss psy­chi­a­trist Her­mann Rorschach, the ten am­bigu­ous im­ages made from folded over inkblots, have evolved from a sim­ple test de­signed to spot signs of schizophre­nia into cul­tural iconog­ra­phy that came to sym­bol­ise our in­creased fas­ci­na­tion with psy­chother­apy in the mid to late 20th cen­tury.

Cre­ative up­bring­ing

Her­mann was born in Zurich as the el­dest of three chil­dren. Hav­ing lost his mother when he was just 12, his fa­ther, an art teacher, en­cour­aged him to ex­press him­self cre­atively through paint­ing and draw­ing. It was at this early age that his fas­ci­na­tion with art (and par­tic­u­larly ink), which would so in­flu­ence his psy­cho­anal­y­sis ca­reer, be­gan to show it­self. As a boy the young Her­mann was a big fan of a pop­u­lar game called Kleck­so­gra­phie. The idea was to col­lect inkblot cards and make as­so­ci­a­tions and in­vent sto­ries from them. So great was his love for the game that his nick­name as a young man was Kleck – from Tin­ten­klecks, the Ger­man word for inkblot.

As he got older he found him­self torn between study­ing sci­ence and pur­su­ing his artis­tic en­deav­ours. He wrote to Ernst Haeckel, the Ger­man bi­ol­o­gist who was fa­mous for his pre­cise il­lus­tra­tions of or­gan­isms, to ask for his ad­vice. Haeckel re­sponded that Her­mann would be bet­ter off in pur­su­ing a ca­reer in sci­ence. While still de­bat­ing his choices he lost his artis­tic in­flu­ence after his fa­ther died and at this point his di­rec­tion now seemed set.

After de­cid­ing to aban­don the idea of a ca­reer as an artist and pur­sue psy­chi­a­try, in

1904, Rorschach headed to the Académie de Neuchâ­tel in his na­tive Switzer­land, and he con­tin­ued his med­i­cal stud­ies at in­sti­tu­tions in Bern, Zurich, Nurem­berg and Ber­lin.

Open to in­ter­pre­ta­tion

The zeit­geist that would give rise to Rorschach’s re­search found fal­low ground in the early part of the 20th cen­tury, when the sci­ence it­self was un­der­go­ing a rev­o­lu­tion. Led by the likes of Freud and Jung – whose lec­tures Rorschach may have at­tended while a stu­dent in Zurich – psy­cho­anal­y­sis was start­ing to place a great em­pha­sis on the un­con­scious mind.

Rorschach stud­ied Freud’s dream the­o­ries, while Jung told his au­di­ences that their un­der­ly­ing sto­ries were far more cru­cial to the field of psy­chol­ogy than sta­tis­ti­cal meth­ods

or sim­ple an­a­lyt­ics. Mean­while, an­other Swiss psy­chi­a­trist Szy­man Hens – whom Rorschach was aware of – had al­ready been us­ing inkblots to study the fan­tasies of his pa­tients. Think­ing back to the game he ob­sessed over as a child, Rorschach be­gan to won­der why dif­fer­ent peo­ple in­ter­preted the same inkblots dif­fer­ently. Hav­ing taken an in­ter­est in schizophre­nia, a term coined by Rorschach’s men­tor Eu­gen Bleuler, Rorschach tested pa­tients with the con­di­tion us­ing Kleck­so­gra­phie inkblots. He dis­cov­ered they re­sponded dif­fer­ently to those who didn’t have it.

Hon­ing and fur­ther devel­op­ing the im­ages, Rorschach ap­par­ently used the tech­nique to study more than 400 sub­jects, in­clud­ing 300 men­tal pa­tients and 100 con­trol sub­jects.

After much re­fine­ment the test con­sisted of ten inkblot im­ages, some of which were black and

“Rorschach used the tech­nique to study more than 400 sub­jects”

white while some were mul­ti­coloured. In the first stage, a pa­tient is shown the im­ages and is asked to re­lay what they think the card looks like.

There are no ‘wrong’ an­swers, but the pa­tients are in­stead free to in­ter­pret each im­age how­ever they see fit. In the sec­ond phase, Rorschach would ask for elab­o­ra­tion on why they saw cer­tain things. Rorschach ar­gued that when a per­son is shown an am­bigu­ous, mean­ing­less im­age, the mind will im­pose its own mean­ing on the im­age.

The test sub­ject’s re­ac­tions can then be scored by a psy­chother­a­pist, who might also con­sider whether the pa­tient chose to in­ter­pret the whole im­ages or just a par­tic­u­lar de­tail, or whether they were par­tic­u­larly at­tracted to the coloured parts of the pic­tures. Their in­ter­pre­ta­tions are then built into a pro­file of the test sub­ject.

Last­ing legacy

Rorschach pub­lished his find­ings – along with his all-im­por­tant inkblots – in his 1921 book Psy­chodi­ag­nos­tik. How­ever, his con­tro­ver­sial ap­proach found lit­tle ini­tial suc­cess and Rorschach died sud­denly a year later, age 37 from peri­toni­tis, be­fore he could carry out what he con­sid­ered to be much-needed fur­ther study. But the Ger­man psy­chol­o­gist Bruno Klopfer saw im­por­tance in the work and picked up where Rorschach had left off. Klopfer made changes to the test’s scor­ing sys­tem, but be­came an in­flu­en­tial ad­vo­cate for pro­jec­tive per­son­al­ity tests, even­tu­ally lead­ing to them be recog­nised as an im­por­tant psy­chi­atric tool. In Ed­war­dian Eng­land the Rorschach test was used

“Pa­tients are in­stead free to in­ter­pret each im­age how­ever they see fit”

to di­ag­nose whether a pa­tient’s dif­fi­cul­ties were psy­chotic, neu­rotic, or or­ganic in na­ture, and after the Sec­ond World War many doc­tors work­ing with the Min­istry of De­fence used the Rorschach test for the se­lec­tion and mon­i­tor­ing of mil­i­tary per­son­nel. But its pop­u­lar­ity in the UK be­gan to de­cline in the 1970s when the tech­niques were at­tacked as un­sci­en­tific.

This test gained huge pop­u­lar­ity in the United States though, where the idea of psy­chother­apy was mov­ing from the no­tion of it be­ing prac­ticed in men­tal in­sti­tu­tions, to a per­fectly ac­cept­able method of deal­ing with the stresses and strains of mid­dle Amer­i­can sub­ur­ban life. It had even been de­ployed by the US dur­ing the Nurem­berg tri­als and used to gauge the in­ner­most thoughts of Nazi war crim­i­nals, while the US army also be­gan to use it to screen re­cruits for the army, just as the UK had. By the 1960s it was the most promi­nently used pro­jec­tive test in the United States and ranked eighth in the list of tests used in US out­pa­tient men­tal health care.

Cul­tural im­pact

De­spite its pop­u­lar­ity, it has con­tin­ued to be a source of huge con­tro­versy and was crit­i­cised ex­ten­sively dur­ing the 1950s and 1960s for its lack of stan­dard­ised pro­ce­dures and scor­ing meth­ods. Most per­son­al­ity tests are ob­jec­tive in that they have stan­dard meth­ods of ad­min­is­tra­tion and scor­ing. The Rorschach test is con­sid­ered pro­jec­tive, be­cause the test taker must project his or her thoughts and feel­ings onto am­bigu­ous im­ages. In­ter­pre­ta­tion falls within the realm of the tester’s judg­ment. The idea of ‘di­ag­no­sis be­ing in the eye of the be­holder’ is also an is­sue which has of­ten tor­pe­doed the test’s cred­i­bil­ity.

Be­yond psy­chol­ogy cir­cles though, the test’s strik­ing im­agery has pro­pelled it into main­stream pop cul­ture. The artist Andy Warhol cre­ated a whole se­ries of paint­ings based on the Rorschach test, while in 1986 the Watch­men graphic novel fea­tured an ink-blot-masked char­ac­ter named Rorschach. In­deed, Hil­lary Clin­ton claimed that she her­self was ‘a Rorschach test’, sug­gest­ing that peo­ple see in her what­ever it is they want to. It has also fre­quently been fea­tured on TV, movies and even mu­sic videos through­out the years.

An ex­am­ple of Kleck­so­gra­phie from 1878

Her­mann Rorschach, the ar­chi­tect of the inkblot test, circa 1910

Some­one tak­ing the Rorschach Test

Carl Jung, one of the early in­flu­ences on Rorschach

The Rorschach test was given to Nazi war crim­i­nals at the Nurem­berg tri­als

One of the cards by Wayne H Holtz­man

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