Do Rorschach tests really work

Rorschach test: a meditating giraffe in the lotus position

For me the case is clear: the sixth card shows a meditating giraffe in the lotus position, pictured from below. And on card three, two naked hermaphrodites beat a giant drum while a red butterfly flutters between them. But what on earth is the tenth picture all about? It could be a colorful plate of fruit salad. Maybe an aquarium too. Or isn't it after all two fighting brothers who beat each other with blue crabs? And what does it say about me that I think I see just that?

Hardly any other psychological test is so fascinating, so controversial and so surrounded by myths as the Rorschach test. The implementation is rather simple: the test persons should describe what they see on ten symmetrical inkblot images. Their reactions should then reveal how they think and feel, their personality and possible disorder patterns. But how the answers are to be interpreted and whether the test actually does what it says - psychologists have been arguing about this for almost 100 years.

This article is contained in Spectrum Psychology, 2/2020 (March / April)

Playing with "Kleksographs" was a popular pastime in the 19th century: Put a little ink on a sheet of paper, fold the sheet in the middle, press it down firmly and unfold it again - you have a pretty random structure that stimulates and closes the imagination enticed all sorts of gimmicks. Many provided their blotch images with witty verses or stories. And in the parlor game "Blotto", the participants should quickly guess what might be hidden behind the random images. The young Swiss psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach (1884–1922), on the other hand, had something else in mind with the blotch paintings: With their help, he wanted to better recognize and differentiate between the mental illnesses of his patients. From several hundred pictures he had made himself, he selected ten as his test material. He selected these so that they were not too abstract, but also not too clear: the ink images should be as ambivalent as possible in order to stimulate the thinking of his patients.

Rorschach checked his cards on 300 mentally ill people. He wrote the results down in 1921 in his book Psychodiagnostik. At first there was no great success; hardly anyone took any notice of his inkblot test. He himself did not live to see the late fame of his invention: Just one year after the book was published, the doctor died at the age of 37 of complications from appendicitis. But his friends and students worked to ensure that his work would not be forgotten. They took up Rorschach's approach and continued to develop it further.

Rorschach's heirs

What happened next is somewhat reminiscent of the various Gospels in the New Testament: In the United States alone, Rorschach's disciples created five independent versions of the test. Other versions were circulating in various European countries and even in Japan. That created chaos. It was not until the 1960s that the US psychologist John Exner saved Rorschach's legacy with his "Comprehensive System" - a uniform scheme that was supposed to replace the many competing versions. "Exner's approach was: We only keep what can be empirically shown and collect psychometric data so that we can better compare people," explains psychotherapist and Rorschach expert Sadegh Nashat from the University of Geneva.

Exner's work was a complete success. His new system caught on worldwide and always inspired researchers to do new things. The Rorschach enthusiasts no longer just wanted to uncover psychological disorders. Instead, they wanted a comprehensive picture of the human psyche: intelligence, thinking styles, personality traits. The test uses a complex evaluation scheme with around 70 different variables. It's not just about What the test persons see, but also about how they describe it: How complex and unusual are the answers? How often does the test person describe human activities? How long does she hesitate before answering? Does she respond to the shades of color? Does she notice the white negative space of the blotch images? How often does she recognize internal organs, food, aggressive actions? Every seemingly unimportant detail can play a role in the evaluation.