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Rorschach inkblot test

The Rorschach inkblot test is a psychological projective test ofdo not try this at home! personality in which a subject's interpretations of ten standard abstract designs are analyzed as a Herman Rorschachmeasure of emotional and intellectual functioning and integration. The test is named after Hermann Rorschach (1884-1922) who developed the inkblots, although he did not use them for personality analysis.

The test is considered "projective" because the patient is supposed to project his or her real personality into the inkblot via the interpretation. The inkblots are purportedly ambiguous, structureless entities which are to be given a clear structure by the interpreter. Those who believe in the efficacy of such tests think that they are a way of getting into the deepest recesses of the patient's psyche or subconscious mind. Those who give such tests believe themselves to be experts at interpreting their patients' interpretations.

What evidence is there that an interpretation of an inkblot (or a picture drawing or sample of handwriting--other items used in projective testing) issues from a part of the self that reveals true feelings, rather than, say, creative expression? What justification is there for assuming that any given interpretation of an inkblot does not issue from a part of the self bent on deceiving others, or on deceiving oneself for that matter? Even if the interpretations issued from a part of the self which expresses desires, it is a long jump from having desires to having committed actions. For example, an interpretation may unambiguously express the desire to have sex with the therapist, but that does not imply either that the patient has had sex with the therapist or that the patient, if given the opportunity, would agree to have sex with the therapist.

Rorschach testing is inherently problematic. For one thing, to be truly projective the inkblots must be considered ambiguous and without structure by the therapist. Hence, the therapist must not make reference to the inkblot in interpreting the patient's responses or else the therapist's projection would have to be taken into account by an independent party. Then the third person would have to be interpreted by a fourth ad infinitum. Thus, the therapist must interpret the patient's interpretation without reference to what is being interpreted. Clearly, the inkblot becomes superfluous. You might as well have the patient interpret spots on the wall or stains on the floor. In other words, the interpretation must be examined as if it were a story or dream with no particular reference in reality. Even so, ultimately the therapist must make a judgment about the interpretation, i.e., interpret the interpretation. But again, who is to interpret the therapist's interpretation? Another therapist? Then, who will interpret his? etc.

To avoid this logical problem of having a standard for a standard for a standard, etc., the experts invented standardized interpretations of interpretations. Both form and content are standardized. For example, a patient who attends only to a small part of the blot is "indicative of obsessive personality;" while one who sees figures which are half-human and half-animal indicates that he is alienated, perhaps on the brink of schizophrenic withdrawal from people (Dawes, 148). If there were no standardized interpretations of the interpretations, then the same interpretations by patients could be given equally valid but different interpretations by therapists. What empirical tests have been done to demonstrate that any given interpretation of an inkblot is indicative of any past behavior or predictive of any future behavior? In short, interpreting the inkblot test is about as scientific as interpreting dreams.

To have any hope of making the inkblot test appear to be scientifically valid, it was essential that it be turned into a non-projective test. The blots can't be considered completely formless, but must be given a standard response against which the interpretations of patients are to be compared as either good or bad responses. This is what John E. Exner did. The Exner System uses inkblots as a standardized test. On its face, the concept seems preposterous. Imagine admitting people into med school on the basis of such a standardized test! Or screening candidates for the police academy! ("I didn't get in because I failed the inkblot test.")

The Rorschach enthusiast should recognize that inkblots or dreams or drawings or handwriting may be no different in structure than spoken words or gestures. Each is capable of many interpretations, some true, some false, some meaningful, some meaningless. It is an unprovable assumption that dreams or inkblot interpretations issue from a source deep in the subconscious which wants to reveal the "real" self. The mind is a labyrinth and it is a pipe dream to think that the inkblot is Ariadne's thread which will lead the therapist to the center of the patient.

See also apophenia, pareidolia, tarot cards, and  "How. F.B.I. profiles are like expert Rorschach readings" by R. T. Carroll.

reader comments

further reading

books and articles

Dawes, Robyn M. House of Cards - Psychology and Psychotherapy Built on Myth, (New York: The Free Press, 1994).

Dineen, Tana. Manufacturing Victims: What the Psychology Industry is Doing to People (Montreal: Robert Davies Multimedia Publishing, 1998).

What's Wrong With the Rorschach?: Science Confronts the Controversial Inkblot Test by James M. Wood, Teresa Nezworski, Scott O. Lilienfeld, Howard N. Garb (John Wiley 2003).


The Rorschach Inkblot Test, Fortune Tellers, and Cold Reading by James M. Wood, M. Teresa Nezworski, Scott O. Lilienfeld, and Howard N. Garb. (Famous clinical psychologists used the Rorschach Inkblot Test to arrive at incredible insights. But were the astounding performances of these Rorschach Wizards merely a variation on astrology and palm reading?)

The Classical Rorschach

"What's Wrong with This Picture?" Scientific American, May 2001

The Rorschach Test - SPARC

The Rorschach Test - Rorschach.com

news stories

Testing times for Wikipedia after doctor posts secrets of the Rorschach inkblots ("James Heilman from Saskatchewan posted all ten inkblot plates on Wikipedia alongside the most common responses given to each.")

Last updated 08-Nov-2013


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