What do you see?
Spilling the truth on the Rorschach inkblot test and how it took psychology into the mainstream
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.
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.
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.
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