What's behind the Rorschach inkblot test?

Psychologist conducting Rorschach test

Few devices from the world of psychology have entered popular culture quite so much as Hermann Rorschach's famous inkblot test. But the test still divides psychologists, writes Dr Mike Drayton.

I first came across the Rorschach inkblot test when I was training to be a clinical psychologist. I was shown a series of cards containing inkblots and asked to say what they looked like to me (Tester: "What does this look like?" Me: "A bat.") I remember thinking that it felt more like a tarot reading than a proper psychometric test.

However, when the test was scored and interpreted, it produced a scarily accurate profile of my personality. It knew things about me that even my mother didn't know. I've been a fan, if a rather sceptical one, ever since.

So, what is the Rorschach inkblot test? It's simply a set of cards containing pictures of inkblots that have been folded over on themselves to create a mirror image.

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The Rorschach is what psychologists call a projective test. The basic idea of this is that when a person is shown an ambiguous, meaningless image (ie an inkblot) the mind will work hard at imposing meaning on the image. That meaning is generated by the mind.

By asking the person to tell you what they see in the inkblot, they are actually telling you about themselves, and how they project meaning on to the real world.

But the inventor of the test, Hermann Rorschach, never intended it to be a test of personality.

A Rorschach test inkblot Some might see two elephants dancing

As a child, the young Hermann was a big fan of a popular game called Klecksographie, so much so that his nickname was Kleck. The idea of the game was to collect inkblot cards that could be bought from local shops and make associations and stories from the inkblots.

Rorschach went on to study psychiatry and while training, in 1918, he noticed that patients diagnosed with schizophrenia made radically different associations to the Klecksographie inkblots than did normal people. He therefore developed the Rorschach test as a diagnostic tool for schizophrenia.

It wasn't until 1939 that the test was used as a projective test of personality. Rorschach himself had always been sceptical about this.

This controversy about the reliability and validity of the Rorschach has been present since its conception. Today, many - probably most - psychologists in the UK think the Rorschach is nonsense.

Wikipedia controversy

A Rorschach test inkblot
  • In 2009, all 10 images from the Rorschach test were posted on Wikipedia, along with possible answers
  • Many psychologists complained that publishing the inkblots online rendered them useless, as patients should not see the images before undertaking the test
  • They argued that patients would not answer honestly if they were already familiar with the inkblots and had memorised the 'correct' answers
  • It wasn't the first time inkblots from the test had been published. In 1983, William Poundstone printed them in his book Big Secrets

Criticisms of the Rorschach have centred on three things:

First, some psychologists have argued that the testing psychologist also projects his or her unconscious world on to the inkblots when interpreting responses.

For example, if the person being tested sees a bra, a male psychologist might classify this as a sexual response, whereas a female psychologist may classify it as clothing.

Second, the Rorschach has also been criticised for its validity. In other words, is it measuring what it says it is measuring? Rorschach was clear that his test measured disordered thinking (as found in schizophrenia) and this has never been disputed. But whether it accurately measures personality as well is up for debate.

Finally, critics have suggested that the Rorschach lacks reliability. Two different testers might come up with two different personality profiles for the same person.

I am also sceptical about the scientific validity of the Rorschach. But I do think it is a useful tool in therapy and coaching as a way of encouraging self-reflection and starting a conversation about the person's internal world.

Here's an example of how I have used the Rorschach:

Samantha is a 28-year-old lawyer. She is happily married and has recently discovered she is pregnant. She and her husband had been trying to conceive for the past year.

Inkblot

I used the Rorschach as part of a leadership coaching programme with her. To give you a flavour of the Rorschach in practice, here are her responses to this card.

"It's two people facing each other. You can see their heads, arms and legs spread out. (1) There is a big cooking pot between them. They are stirring the cooking pot, making food. (2) The thing in the middle is like two hearts - maybe it's meant to show that they are in love?

"(2) The red thing in the middle looks like a butterfly. I know it's silly - and probably because I'm pregnant, but the (3) red things on each side look like newborn babies with the umbilical cords still attached. When I think of that, the (4) two people could be a mummy and daddy holding a Moses basket or cot. Look, you can see the blanket round the side.

"(2) The red in the middle is their two hearts joined and is the baby. (1) They could be fighting for the baby, like a tug-of-war with the cot. That reminds me of work, which I haven't thought about for ages. Parents divorcing and fighting over the children. God forbid that would happen to me."

Rorschach's influence

  • Many artists have been influenced by Rorschach's inkblots, including Andy Warhol - who created a series of "Rorschach paintings" in 1984
  • The "inkblot" style has been used in promotional London Underground maps and to advertise US drama Dexter.
  • Rorschach's work has also inspired fiction, including the Rorschach character in Watchmen - and music videos such as Gnarls Barkley's Crazy

Samantha is a well-adjusted, confident and successful woman who is experiencing a particularly happy period in her life. It is clear to see how she projects the themes of her current life on to the inkblot.

There is a strong theme of partnership and attachment. The two people making something ("stirring the cooking pot"), alludes to Samantha's pregnancy. This theme is then reinforced ("the red things on each side look like new-born babies with the umbilical cords still attached"), and then instantiated ("the two people could be a mummy and daddy holding a Moses basket or cot").

Anxiety is the opposing emotion to joy in Samantha's emotional dynamic. Worries about future conflict with her partner intrude into her narrative ("they could be fighting for the baby, like a tug-of-war with the cot").

This is only a snapshot. There were many other things in Samantha's Rorschach that opened the doors to how her internal psychological world impacted on her life at home and work.

Here is a selection of your comments.

Two people and, from their stance, they are each holding and pulling at whatever the black shape is. The red shape between them looks like a butterfly but I can attach no significance between that and the black forms; the red shape behind each looks like nothing I can think of. I do feel that my interpretation alludes to tension and competition.

Emma, London

I see a bust. A bust in a white tuxedo that would start near the mouth/chin and end at upper chest. (2) would be a red bow tie, that's the first thing I thought when I was looking at the picture, then I tried to make something out of the rest. The white delimited by the black around (1) would be the lapels. (4) would be the outline of the base of the neck/neck, and the head shapes could be facial hair on the sides. (3) would be the start of the hair (seems like an outdated haircut), a red-haired person, outlining the face you can't see.

Matthieu, Montpellier

The inkblot looks like two waiters moving a table with a cake (or some kind of decorated dish, the butterfly) on top. The red images on the sides reminds me of figures of Christmas angels hanging on either side of a church crib.

Lydia Flynn, Hyderabad

I see a white dragonfly with a red butterfly above in the centre and then there are birds - eagles in the white spaces perched on rocks or tree trunks, the black outside them birds with beaks pointing up like they're just about to fly off their perches, the two red parts at the top are birds hanging on a feeder. The 'heads' are like closed butterfly wings - basically a lot of flying creatures.

Finola Prescott, Gros Islet, St Lucia

Initially I saw two French up-market waiters leaning over a small serving table maybe to pick up a tray (4), with a jug or two bottles of red wine in the background maybe on a shelf (2), with two distorted lights in the background. The it began to feel more threatening as a feline face began to emerge, with agressive teeth showing (1), glaring eyes (2), Cheeks (3), and lights off in the distance from maybe a nearby village (4).

Lisa Bunyan, Woking, Surrey

Hello, the negative space is quite alluring too-I can see a 3D chalice with shadows primarily to the underside. If I partially close my eyes, I can see a vertical 'downward' column about to be mechanically enveloped by suitably shaped arms. Then again, I can see a sort of figure with a crumpled face, speaking between giant symmetrical romanesque statuettes; I think I'll take tomorrow off!

Andy Peet, Carlton, UK

I see a badger with a butterfly between its eyes.

SE Brown, Leeds

Two monkeys playing a drum. The red bits may just be something colourful in the jungle.

Mike Sculthorp, Edenbridge, UK

Two people (4) facing each other taking part in a contest probably of strength. The two small red figures behind their heads are 'devil' like creatures or goblins urging them each on. (3) the bottom drawing (1) is the instrument to test their strength which they are going to pull in opposite directions. The red in the middle (2) is the starting buttons they are going to press to start the contest.

David Cole, Tonbridge, Kent

The two main figures are butler types in tails. They seem to be pulling a fat face between them. I can see they are pulling on the grey eyebrows, and the thick dark mutton chops..They have their legs wide apart. Behind them are two women. The red is their face in profile. I see a lock of hair, the nose, a mouth, chin all very clearly. The women are almost whispering. The central red object is a bow-tie, belonging to an as yet unseen observer between the two women.

Liam, Acton, London

Not sure about Samantha's but the other one is clearly two gnomes 'high fiving' each other.

Aaron, London

To me this inkblot appears to be more destructive/negative. It looks like an angry boar. (1) is its snout with little tusks. (2) is the wrinkled area between the eyes, showing its anger and focus. (3) is either flames or some representation of destruction in the background. (4) is the boar's neck/head.

Sarah M, Oklahoma City

1) Table. 2) Butterfly. 3) Monkey hanging upside down. 4) Person (note not necessarily human) cave-painting style leaning over table with another person in mirror image on the left. First thought was sticky-out bits on legs were spiky knees. Studying for longer my brain invariably jumped to a ruder interpretation! I've just come back from my honeymoon, just married a week ago Saturday at a waterfall in Wales. Doing a PhD in electronic and electrical engineering (did BSc Environmental Science before that with work inbetween), have ecclectic taste in music and adore console/computer games and the sci-fi written works of C J Cherryh. 29 this year. Agnostic. Correlations?

Emily, Bath

Two people facing each other in trying to resolve a problem. No. 1 they are shaking out something (maybe the issue to be resolved). No. 2 is a butterfly which shows that balance and harmony are trying to be provided to the couple because they love each other and want to resolve the issue. No. 3 Angels guiding the two individuals.

Caroline Kyle, UK

It clearly looks like two people pulling at something - with equal weight and force. They are exactly two opposing forces; except they don't seem angry - only that they are two sides of an equal force. The red in the middle looks like hearts; an expression of the love or tie that holds that holds them together.

Salma, Born Birmingham, now live in Amsterdam

To me it clearly looks like an ultrasound scan of a uterus with the two (red) ovaries at the top on either side. The red splodge in the middle could be an embryo. It would be interesting to see if I had interpreted the image differently if I hadn't first read Samantha's background.

Georgina, Nottingham

I see a girl wearing a tuxedo. The red blots at the sides are the curled ends of her hair. The red blot in the middle is a bow tie. The white area below looks like lapels, and the black brushes to the top form her neck and the lower part of her face.

Junie, Singapore

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