Many people have heard of the famous Rorschach test, also called the Rorschach inkblot test, in which a person is asked to describe what they see in ambiguous inkblot images. This projective test often appears in popular culture and is frequently portrayed as a way of revealing a person’s unconscious thoughts, motives, or desires.
Take a look at the image below. What do you see?
Many people see a white vase and others see the silhouettes of two people looking at each other.
Hermann Rorschach, a well-known Swiss psychologist, studied people’s responses when he showed them abstract designs, known as inkblots. Inkblots look just like unrecognizable blobs of ink or paint on a piece of paper. He then used their responses to tell more about their personalities.
Rorschach, who was born in 1884 in Zurich, Switzerland, studied medicine and earned an M.D. degree at the University of Zurich. His father was an art teacher, and Hermann was interested in art and enjoyed drawing. It is said his high school friends nicknamed him Klex, which means ‘blob’ or ‘inkblot’ because he liked to play Klecksography, a game in which people put ink onto paper, then fold it in half. Upon opening it up, it was possible to see a unique design that was made by the ink.
Rorschach wasn’t the first to suggest that a person’s interpretation of an ambiguous scene might reveal hidden aspects of that individual’s personality. Alfred Binet also experimented with the idea of using inkblots as a way to test creativity and originally planned to include inkblots in his intelligence tests.
The inkblot test
Rorschach had begun research on the use of ink blots in determining personality traits as early as 1911, and Rorschach was aware of the work of other researchers. However, he found that they had not developed a consistent method of administering and scoring such a test. Rorschach tested both emotionally healthy people and patients in the mental hospital where he was employed, devising a system for testing and analyzing the results.
Rorschach devised the ten standardized cards used today as well as a scoring system for the Inkblot test. There are ten official inkblots. Five inkblots are black ink on white. Two are black and red ink on white. Three are multicolored. The tester shows the inkblots in a particular order and asks the patient, for each card, “What might this be?” After the patient has seen and responded to all the inkblots, the psychologist then gives them to him again one at a time to study. The patient is asked to list everything he sees in each blot, where he sees it, and what there is in the blot that makes it look like that. The blot can also be rotated. As the patient is examining the inkblots, the psychologist writes down everything the patient says or does, no matter how trivial.
Rorschach considered his test to be a test of “perception and apperception,” rather than imagination. The original scoring system emphasizes perceptual factors—for example, whether a response is influenced by form, perceived movement, or color of the blot.
He presented his system in his publication, Psychodiagnostik (1921), explaining not only the test itself but also his theory of human personality. He suggested that as each person displays a mixture of traits, some guided by internal factors and others by external factors; the ink-blot test would reveal the amount of each trait and their strengths and weaknesses.
Despite lack of sales of his publication, to the extent that the publisher, Bircher, went bankrupt, those who did respond were extremely critical. Undeterred, Rorschach spoke of his plans to improve upon the system, looking upon his Psychodiagnostik as only a preliminary work that he intended to develop further. Unfortunately, his death prevented that.
Blot Card 1
Popular resonses: bat, butterfly, moth
This card is a relatively easy one in the series, with much of any asosciated stress in dealing with it being trying to understand how to conduct a new task.
Blot Card 2
Popular responses: two humans, four-legged animal such as a dog, elephant or bear
Many subjects interpret the red as blood, which can display how the subject might respond to feelings of anger or physical harm. Some also associate the blood with power & have sexual responses to the card.
Blot Card 3
Popular responses: two people
Responses to this card can show if people have struggles in managing social settings & how they interact with others.
Blot Card 4
Popular responses: animal hide, animal skin, skin rug
The dark color of this blot can pose difficulty for depressed subjects. The “face” appears to be looking downward which makes it look like one is looking “up” at an imposing monster, to understand how one responds to authority. The card is often perceived as being associated with a male figure, which is why the card is often called “The Father Card.”
Blot Card 5
Popular responses: bat, butterly, moth
This card is viewed as a transition card that does not typically evoke strong emotional response. The topic is usually seen as non-threatening & indicate a “change of pace” to where the test will become easier.
Blot Card 6
Popular responses: animal hide, animal skin, skin rug
While the core interpretation is of a similar topic to blot card 4, the texture of this blot stands out as a stronger feature. This can elicit associations related to itnerpersonal closeness & is associated with sex more than any of the other cards.
Blot Card 7
Popular responses: human heads, faces, heads of women or children
This card can be asssociated with feminity & it functions as the “mother card.” If a person struggles to respond to this card it could indicate one has difficulty with female figures in their life. In some cases the blot can be associated with a vagina, relating to female sexuality.
Blot Card 8
Popular responses: pink four-legged animal, some animal other than a cat or dog
The color in this card brightens the mood when compared to the black & white blots. This change in color also creates a perceived “change of pace” though adding color to the card along with the additional details can overwhelm people who struggle to cope with complex situations.
Blot Card 9
Popular response: human
This card is generally vague, relying on diffuse, muted chromatic features & an indistinct form. This, in turn, means many people struggle with finding anything specif of note in it. Though if a subject has difficulty processing this card to generate a response it can indicate trouble dealing with unstructured data.
Blot Card 10
Popular responses: crab, lobster, blue spider, rabit head, worms, snakes, caterpillars
Subjects are aware this card is the last one, so it may give them an opportunity to reveal anything they wanted to state but failed to state thusfar. The complexity of it may overwhelf some people who can not manage significant concurrent stimuli.
The Rorschach test has grown to be one of the most popularly used psychological tests. It’s primarily used in psychotherapy and counseling.1
Those who use it regularly do so as a way of obtaining a great deal of qualitative information about a person, including their personality, emotional functioning, and thinking patterns. The therapist and client can then further explore some of these issues during therapy.
So what exactly do interpreters of the Rorschach test look for when they are analyzing responses to the inkblots? The actual content of the responses is one thing, but other factors are essential as well.
Content refers to the name or class of objects used in your responses. Some common contents include:
- Whole Human (H): A whole human figure.
- Human Detail (Hd): An incomplete human form (e.g., a leg) or a whole form without a body part (e.g., a person without a head).
- Human Detail (fictional or mythological; Hd): An incomplete fictional or mythological human figure (e.g., wings of an angel).
- Animal Detail (Ad): An incomplete animal form (e.g., cat’s head, claw of a crab).
- Sex (Sx): Anything involving sex organs, activity of a sexual nature, or sexual reproduction (e.g., sexual intercourse, breasts).
- Nature (Na): Anything astronomical or weather-related (e.g., sun, planets, water, rainbow).
Some responses are quite common, while others may be much more unique. Highly atypical responses are notable since they might indicate disturbances in thought patterns.
Identifying the location of your response is another element scored in the Rorschach system. Location refers to how much of the inkblot you used to answer the question.
- “D” if a commonly described part of the blot was used.
- “Dd” if an uncommonly described or unusual detail was used.
- “S” if the white space in the background was used.
- “W” if the whole inkblot was used to answer the question.
Determinant coding is one of the most complex features of scoring Rorschach. This is where the examiner considers the reasons why you see what you see. What inkblot features helped determine your response and how?
There are six broad categories of inkblot determinants you could be responding to:
- Pairs and Reflections
For example, if you report seeing a flower in Card 8 because of the red color, your examiner may code that response as Color determinant.
Each category has its own subcategories and there are at least 26 possible determinant codes. More than one determinant can be used in a single response.
Interpreting a Rorschach record is a complex process. It requires a wealth of knowledge concerning personality dynamics generally as well as considerable experience with the Rorschach method specifically.
In addition to formal scores, Rorschach interpretation is also based on behaviors expressed during the testing, patterns of scores across responses, unique or consistent themes in the responses, and unique or idiosyncratic perceptions.
A relatively fast response might indicate being at ease with others and comfortable with social relationships. A delayed response, however, might reveal that the individual struggles with social interactions.
Despite its popularity, the Rorschach is a controversial test. Many of the criticisms center on how the test is scored and whether the results have any diagnostic value.2
Multiple Scoring Systems
Before 1970, there were as many as five scoring systems that differed so dramatically that they essentially represented five different versions of the test. In 1974, John Exner published a comprehensive new scoring system that combined the strongest elements of the earlier systems.3
The Exner scoring system is now the standard approach used in the administration, scoring, and interpretation of the Rorschach test.
Some experts caution, however, that since the Exner scoring system contains errors, clinicians might be prone to over-diagnosing psychotic disorders if they rely heavily on Exner’s system.4
Another key criticism of the Rorschach is that it lacks reliability.4 Reliability means you get the same results no matter who is scoring the test. Scoring relies heavily on examiner interpretation. Because of this, two examiners can arrive at two very different conclusions when looking at the same person’s responses.
In addition to early criticism of the inconsistent scoring systems, detractors also find fault with its validity.4 In other words, does it measure what it claims to measure? In this case, can the Rorschach correctly assess your personality characteristics and emotional functioning?
Unfortunately, the answer is a resounding no. Research shows the Rorschach is most often unable to accurately diagnose most psychological disorders, including depression, anxiety, or personality disorders.5 However, research shows that it does have value for assessing thought disorders and schizophrenia-related symptoms.6
Because all of these issues, in 1999, several psychologists recommended a moratorium on the use of the test for clinical and forensic purposes—at least until further research determined its real validity.7
Is the Rorschach Still Used?
Today, some psychologists dismiss the Rorschach as merely a relic of psychology’s past, a pseudoscience on par with phrenology.
However, though the inkblot test may not be a perfect tool, it continues to be used widely, particularly for diagnosing schizophrenia—which was Rorschach’s original intent for the test.6 The test is used in a variety of settings, such as in schools, hospitals, and courtrooms.
American Psychological Association. APA Psychological Test Collection. Published 2009.
Wood JM, Lilienfeld SO, Nezworski MT, Garb HN, Allen KH, Wildermuth JL. Validity of Rorschach Inkblot scores for discriminating psychopaths from nonpsychopaths in forensic populations: A meta-analysis. Psychological Assessment. 2010;22(2):336-349. doi:10.1037/a0018998
Exner JE Jr. The Rorschach: A Comprehensive System. Vol 1. 1st ed. Wiley; 1974.
Mukheriee, T, Chatterjee, S. Revisiting the Rorschach Controversy: The Rorschach Test- A Ghost of the Past or a Bearer of further promise?. SIS Journal of Projective Psychology & Mental Health. 2019;26(2):118-127.
Wood JM, Lilienfeld SO, Garb HN, Nezworski MT. The Rorschach test in clinical diagnosis: a critical review, with a backward look at Garfield (1947). J Clin Psychol. 2000;56(3):395-430; discussion 431-434. doi:10.1002/(sici)1097-4679(200003)56:3<395::aid-jclp15>3.0.co;2-o
Mihura JL, Meyer GJ, Dumitrascu N, Bombel G. The validity of individual Rorschach variables: systematic reviews and meta-analyses of the comprehensive system. Psychol Bull. 2013;139(3):548-605. doi:10.1037/a0029406
Garb HN. Call for a Moratorium on the Use of the Rorschach Inkblot Test in Clinical and Forensic Settings. Assessment. 1999;6(4):313-318. doi:10.1177/107319119900600402
Gurley JR. Essentials of Rorschach assessment: Comprehensive system and R-PAS. Essentials of Psychological Assessment. 2017;372.
Lee L. The Name’s Familiar Mr. Leotard, Barbie, and Chef Boyardee. First Edition. Pelican; 1999.
O’Roark AM, Exner JE, eds. History and directory: Society for Personality Assessment fiftieth anniversary. Routledge; 2013.
Watkins CE, Campbell VL, Nieberding R, Hallmark R. Contemporary practice of psychological assessment by clinical psychologists. Prof Psychol Res Pr. 1995;26(1):54-60. doi:10.1037/0735-7028.26.1.54
Wood JM, Nezworski MT, Garb HN. What’s right with the Rorschach? The Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice. 2003;2(2):142-146.