The Rorschach

Sooner or later, any discussion of psychological assessment or psychological testing comes around to the Rorschach. Probably no technique in the field of psychology has attracted more interest, more curiosity, or more misinformation than this assessment technique now nearing its second century. To some, the Rorschach Inkblot Method is an almost magical method for probing the "murky depths of the psyche," as one practitioner put it. To others, it is nothing more than pseudo-science, a technique akin to phrenology or astrology - and with the same accuracy. Indeed, in the vernacular, the term Rorschach has come to mean something that provokes different interpretations from different individuals. The test itself, then, might be considered a "Rorschach." There continue to be references to the Rorschach in the popular media, including a recent BBC radio program discussing the method and its current status in the field.

Firstly, a bit of history: The Rorschach Test (now more commonly referred to as the Rorschach Inkblot Method) was developed by a young Swiss psychiatrist, Hermann Rorschach. Rorschach was an interesting man. The son of an avant garde artist, he had a fascination with inkblots and a child's game called "klecksen" (meaning inkspot) as a child. As a psychiatrist, he was searching for a method of evaluating some of his more disturbed patients who weren't easily reachable through interviews alone. Rorschach initially saw the method primarily as a diagnostic instrument, useful in differentiating schizophrenics from manic-depressives or "feeble-minded." The test was published in 1921, but Rorschach died shortly thereafter at the age of 37, before he could conduct much further research. Soon after, however, the test became closely identified with psychoanalysis, and it was seen as a "projective" method-patients were thought to project their unconscious fantasies onto the blots. While use of the instrument in this manner often proved clinically useful, the lack of a consistent method for interpretation as well as the lack of solid empirical research led many to call for its abandonment. In the 1970's, however, a psychologist named John Exner sought to bring order to the chaos and developed a "comprehensive" system for coding and interpreting Rorschach data that was based on empirical research. For a time, it seemed that the "Rorschach wars" were over. However, those who were skeptical of the method (and they tended to be the same psychologists who were skeptical of any "depth" theory or method in psychology) continued their criticisms, culminating in the book "What's Wrong with the Rorschach?" by James Wood and his colleagues. Since that publication, there have been numerous discussions about the reliability, validity, and utility of the Rorschach, and while the critics certainly have not been silenced, the Rorschach continues to be used frequently by psychologists for the purposes of assessment.

The Rorschach is classed as a "performance-based" instrument. That is, the subject performs a task (in this case interpreting an inkblot), and that performance is analyzed both quantitatively and qualitatively. It can be an effective addition to a test battery because, unlike self-report inventories, it is not a function of how the subject views him or herself. Nor is it easily influenced by attempts to present oneself as "healthy" or "sick." At the same time, it is not an "x-ray of the mind," as some have insisted. It can best be seen as an important part of the psychological assessor's armamentarium. No psychologist should base her or his conclusions on a single method, and the Rorschach in conjunction with other instruments can provide meaningful information about individuals in both clinical and non-clinical settings.