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Out, Damned Blot!

1.

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?,1 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.2 For each card the test giver would ask in the most neutral tone, “What might this be?”; he would capture the subject’s responses fully and exactly in a “protocol,” or written record; and he would subsequently arrive at a singular personality profile by sifting that record for telltale features such as the kinds of forms named, whether the focus was on whole shapes or details, emphasis on movement versus color, and whether there was a rigid literalism or a comfortably imaginative accommodation to the imperfect resemblance between the blots and any real-life form.

The extent to which responses emphasized movement and color was of paramount importance in Rorschach’s system of weighing personality. He believed that test takers who offer a high number of movement (“M”) responses are, paradoxically, turned inward or “introversive”; intelligent and creative, they nonetheless are awkward and socially inept. In contrast, subjects who favor color (“C”) responses are “extratensive,” or adroit in company but restless and impulsive. Someone who registers a high number of both M and C scores qualifies as “dilated” or “ambiequal”—a healthy blending of introversive and extratensive traits. But low and similar numbers of M and C responses stigmatize the subject as “coarctative,” or lacking in both creativity and emotional stability.

These rules were far from modest in scope. The close association between creativity and social clumsiness, were it to be upheld by evidence from other sources, would in itself constitute a major discovery, and so would the posited link between social adeptness and impulsiveness. In addition, it would be remarkable if those and other constellations could be inferred with certainty from such utterances as “The bug is bleeding” and “It looks like a skull.” And this is to say nothing of Rorschach’s most expansive boast, which was that his test would be found capable of ascertaining personality differences between regional populations and even whole races.3 Did he have grounds for making such sweeping claims, or was he capriciously assigning the equivalent of fortune cookies to his unsuspecting volunteers?

There is much in Rorschach’s only book, Psychodiagnostics, that might encourage us to regard him as a crank. Bizarrely, for example, he insisted that a movement response be scored if the subject conjured a child sitting at a desk or a vampire sleeping in a coffin, because “muscular tension” was supposedly implied. And although a dog performing in a circus exhibited Rorschach movement, a cat catching a mouse or a fish darting through water did not, because, according to the founder, significant motion had to be “human-like” in function. Meanwhile, Rorschach tagged as “pedants” or “grumblers” any test takers who concentrated on details as opposed to whole images; those who interpreted white spaces were probably troublemakers; and those who hesitated before commenting on the multicolored cards must be exhibiting “color shock,” thereby betraying themselves as neurotic repressers of emotion.

Rorschach argued, quite sensibly, that by examining the average test results (later called “norms”) for many people whose personality traits had already been determined by other means, administrators could learn whether a given kind of response was actually well correlated with a given trait. Yet before he died from a perforated appendix just nine months after the publication of Psychodiagnostics, Rorschach had found time to accumulate test results for only 405 independently categorized subjects, and their types were drastically skewed toward schizophrenia (188 examples) and other pathologies he had encountered in his hospital rounds. Only 117 ordinary people, scattered amid his assorted “morons,” “imbeciles,” “senile dements,” and so forth, had been sampled. Given such a sketchy evidential base, it isn’t surprising that Psychodiagnostics was slow to find admirers; the wonder is that its complex scoring system was finally adopted with so few reservations.

The Rorschach found its true welcome in the world’s headquarters of psychological typecasting and “adjustment,” the United States. Wood engagingly tells how the test finally caught on here in the 1930s, flourished in the Forties and early Fifties, weathered a crisis of doubt in the later Fifties and Sixties, and then surged again until, beginning a decade ago, skeptics began to nip at its heels once more. Along the way, different groups of American enthusiasts devised their own scoring rules to yield the kinds of results that interested them. Through it all, however, Rorschachers have kept faith with the founder’s ten inviolate cards, which have been granted the kind of awe once reserved for texts dictated directly from the sky.

The Rorschach conquered North America and much of the Western world before any part of its rationale had been subjected to stern experimental trial. In seeking to explain this striking fact, Wood notes that inkblot games and tests were current even before Rorschach launched his own version. His key departure—the attempt to gauge a subject’s whole personality and not just a faculty of imagination—fit nicely with the growing sway of psychoanalysis, and more particularly with the Freudian ideas of projection and free association. Again, Americans who preferred the more cheerful Jungian conception of the psyche responded favorably to Rorschach’s adaptation (with significant differences) of Jung’s already celebrated dichotomy between introverts and extraverts. Moreover, in balancing a “romantic” emphasis on deep intuition against an “empiricist” battery of codes and tables for figuring scores, the Rorschach proved at first serviceable, and then virtually indispensable, to the burgeoning American profession of clinical psychology, which was developing its own romantic pretensions but needed an objective-looking diagnostic tool to offset the inherent subjectivism of the one-on-one interview.4

2.

Reasons for popularity, of course, are not the same thing as scientific justifications. Wood et al. remind us that if a given instrument of testing in any field is not to cause havoc, it must be both valid and reliable. In brief, it must measure what it purports to measure and it must yield approximately the same results when readministered in new conditions or by other examiners.

Hermann Rorschach had accepted those criteria in principle, and most of his followers have paid due obeisance to them. But at every juncture where the test stood in peril of being decertified by negative findings, Wood shows, its promoters backed off from empirical accountability and expanded the scope of their claims. The story told in What’s Wrong, by turns appalling and amusing, reads like a parable of the larger struggle between science and pseudoscience, with the latter always managing somehow to issue itself a new reprieve from execution.

When the Rorschach began to attract American followers through word of mouth in the 1930s, it brought to prominence an initially reluctant but subsequently flamboyant champion, Bruno Klopfer, whose talent for salesmanship and deafness to criticism were responsible in part for the high morale of American Rorschachers in the Forties and Fifties. A refugee from Nazi Berlin, Klopfer had studied with Jung in Zurich and had learned how to score various psychological tests there, including the Rorschach. He was barely surviving as a research assistant in Columbia’s anthropology department when eager graduate students learned of his expertise and pressed him into moonlighting as their Rorschach trainer.

Although Klopfer’s real passion had been psychoanalysis, not assessment, he soon contracted a taste for interpreting Rorschach’s still untranslated pronouncements and for devising novel inkblot rules that hadn’t occurred to the master. Before long he possessed a grand career and an adoring crew of disciples who fed his insatiable ego. As Wood explains, this elevation of one person to guruhood added mystification to an already dubious mind-reading program and further postponed a reckoning with the need for evidential support.

In the Rorschach scheme as first conceived, the sum of a subject’s scores for responses in each category of interest—color, say, or white-space shapes—corresponded directly to a certain trait of personality. Klopfer accepted some of those equivalences, but on the whole he found the idea behind them too rigid for capturing the subtleties of human character. What was needed, he argued, was “configural” interpretation, whereby a highly experienced and gifted judge (guess who?) would draw “holistic” inferences from an intuitive contemplation of all of the subject’s scores on the test. The Rorschach judge or “artist” could justify this method by creating anonymous (“blind”) profiles on the basis of protocols compiled by others and then by checking the profiles against case histories or against delayed personal acquaintance with the test takers. The artist himself or someone from his circle of admirers would let the rest of us know, anecdotally, how well he had done.

  1. 1

    James M. Wood and M. Teresa Nezworski are associate professors of psychology at the University of Texas at El Paso and Dallas, respectively; Scott O. Lilienfeld is associate professor of psychology at Emory University; and Howard N. Garb, formerly clinical associate professor of psychiatry in the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Medicine, is now at Wilford Hall Medical Center, Lackland Air Force Base. Since all but one of the book’s twelve chapters were drafted by Wood, I will usually write “Wood” when designating the authors collectively. No slight to the other collaborators is intended.

  2. 2

    It was long thought that Rorschach created his cards simply by folding each wet, multi-blotted page in half along its vertical axis. It now appears, however, that he either painted entire shapes or subtly altered his blots with watercolors to produce desired effects.

  3. 3

    Hermann Rorschach, Psychodiagnostics: A Diagnostic Test Based on Perception, translated by Paul Lemkau and Bernard Kronenberg (Grune and Stratton, 1975), pp. 96–97, 102, 107, 112. With the assistance of prominent American Rorschachers, a Columbia Ph.D. candidate followed Rorschach’s lead in 1939, using test results to suggest that “the White race,” sampled in one of its typical habitats, Columbia Teachers College, is more introversive on the whole than “the Negro race,” sampled in Harlem. See Mary Hunter Sicha, A Study of the Rorschach “Erlebniss-Typus” [sic] of Comparable White and Negro Subjects (doctoral dissertation, Faculty of Philosophy, Columbia University, 1939), pp. 40, 56.

  4. 4

    The struggle between romantic and empiricist tendencies in modern psychology is highlighted in Paul R. McHugh, “Psychotherapy Awry,” The American Scholar, Vol. 63 (1994), pp. 17–30.

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