Out, Damned Blot!

It’s a Rorschach.” That bit of everyday speech, referring to any equivocal stimulus that elicits self-betraying interpretations on all sides, is one sign among many that, in the popular mind at least, the vaunted inkblot challenge has no rival as psychology’s master test. In actuality, the Rorschach is now administered for diagnostic purposes somewhat less frequently than the low-maintenance, question-and-answer Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), which asks the subject to agree or disagree with such flatfooted assertions as “I often feel sad.” But neither the public nor Ror-schachers, as the zealous and clannish guardians of the blot technique are known, take much interest in “superficial” self-report tests such as the MMPI. The mind’s hidden layers, it is assumed, can be tapped only through unguided responses to images lacking determinate content; and the Swiss psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach’s ten cards with bisymmetrical shapes, introduced to an initially unimpressed world in 1921, are thought to have confirmed their uncanny power in countless applications.

This judgment is shared in large measure by American clinical psychologists and other professionals who have occasion to administer personality tests. As we learn from a provocative and important book by James M. Wood, M. Teresa Nezworski, Scott O. Lilienfeld, and Howard N. Garb, What’s Wrong with the Rorschach?, some 80 percent of American Ph.D. programs in clinical psychology still emphasize the Rorschach in required courses; 68 percent of specialist programs in educational psychology teach Rorschach technique; and the test is employed by roughly a third of all psychologists evaluating parents in custody cases, criminals facing sentencing or parole, and children who may or may not have been abused. Until very recently, testimony by Rorschach experts has gone largely unchallenged in our courts.

Necessarily, then, What’s Wrong with the Rorschach? is not just a history of the test’s evolution and periodic vicissitudes. It is also, and with increasing social concern as the story approaches the present, a continual assessment of the merits and pitfalls of projective testing. Since the four authors have themselves been participants in recent debate about the Rorschach, there is no pretense of neutrality here. But Wood and his colleagues do aim at objectivity and fairness, and if they err at all it is on the side of mercy. Readers of What’s Wrong will find no more lucid primer on the requirements of scientific prudence as they relate to the authentication of psychological tests.

An avid reader of both Freud and his Zurich colleague Jung, Rorschach conceived of his test as a nonsectarian aid to psychoanalysis, impersonally determining an individual’s “experience type” (Erlebnistypus) without presuming to favor one psychodynamic faction or another. The idea was to present all test takers with the ten loose printed cards, half of them in black and white and half including some colors, displaying an identical sequence of images. For each card the test giver would ask in the most neutral tone, “What might this be?”; he would capture the …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.