Photo credit: Paul Barbera
You’ve probably heard of the Rorschach, seen some striking inkblots on billboards or TV, and read stories calling just about anything under the sun “a Rorschach test”: with no right or wrong answers, no true or false, your reaction mattering more than the thing itself. If you’re like I was, you assumed the Rorschach was in the dustbin of ham-fisted midcentury psychology, along with truth serum and Woody Allen’s psychoanalysts. I certainly didn’t know where the test comes from, that it really works, and that it is still widely used today.
Hermann Rorschach, 1910
My book The Inkblots
is a kind of double biography of Hermann Rorschach
, the Swiss psychiatrist and artist who created the test a 100 years ago in 1917, and of the test itself: its rise and fall and remarkable endurance, in both psychology and culture.
Wait a second — the Rorschach test works?!
Not the pop-culture version, where if you see a bouncing bunny you’re the good twin, if you see an ax murderer you’re crazy, and hoo-boy look out if you keep seeing your mother.
But someone who can’t put parts together into a whole that makes sense might have some cognitive problems — that seems a lot more plausible. Do you start with details and build up a big picture, or go the other way, or stay stuck in one or the other? Does a complex task freak you out? Do you see even the most lively and animate images as a cold dead world? The Rorschach test isn’t about what
you see as much as it’s about how
Earlier psychologists tended to use them to measure the imagination: you show a random blot to someone, and if they can say two things that the blot looks like, then they’re not very imaginative; if they come up with 20 things, then they have a lot of imagination. Rorschach knew that imagination doesn’t work that way — not every answer is an imaginative one, and how richly you perceive the world isn’t the same as how imaginative you are. Instead of using random smears, he created carefully crafted blots that could bring out specific aspects of how we see, not just how much.
Many people think that everyone makes their own blots, or that doctors just whip up some smears for each new test. In fact, Hermann made 10 unique images, and put them in a specific order to choreograph the test-taking experience. They’re not just blotted, and some of them are in color. Through all the changes in the test, those 10 in that order are still used today, because they work better than the blots anyone else has tried to make.
Left: Draft of Blot I; Right: Notes on the printer's proof
They are very visually interesting — that’s a big part of what inspired me to write this book. Psychology aside, they’re probably the 10 most analyzed paintings of the 20th century! Most smears look like nothing, although you can force yourself to give an interpretation, but Rorschach’s really could
be two waiters holding pots and bowing to each other, or wolves’ faces, or what have you. There is room for individual creativity, but there’s a real structure to the blots — it wouldn’t be much of a test if everyone saw something totally different. And by now there are millions of data points, to check objectively whether something you see is standard or out there.
Who was Hermann Rorschach?
Hermann Rorschach, born in 1884, was a Swiss psychiatrist — Carl Jung
was one of his teachers in college. But his father was a drawing teacher, and he himself was an amateur artist his whole life. He made drawings of his daughter as a visual diary, built and painted toys for his children in the woodworking shop, and was an avid photographer of both landscapes and his patients. He was a visual person.
The thing about Freud
, love him or hate him, is that he was a word person: his psychology is all about the talking cure, “Freudian slips” of the tongue, what we say and don’t say. But not everyone is a word person. Rorschach thought that seeing goes deeper than talking, and that how we see shows more about who we are.
His dissertation was on schizophrenic patients who felt what they saw — one woman, whenever she saw a man mowing a lawn, felt the scythe in her neck; another man felt himself turned into whatever he saw pictures of in a book — and healthy people who experience the same kinds of thing. Working alone in a remote Swiss hospital, he made the inkblots as a “perceptual experiment,” not a test. He slowly realized that different people saw the blots differently, and you could categorize and count responses to measure the differences. The inkblots actually were a diagnostic test
One striking thing about Hermann Rorschach is that he was a really solid, good guy: modest, kind, hard-working; a responsible scientist, truly anti-sexist and supportive of women (unlike Freud and Jung); a good and sympathetic doctor, loved by his patients and colleagues. He overcame a humble background and the early death of both his parents to create a lasting psychological test, a cultural touchstone, and the century’s most visionary synthesis of art and science.
Left: Rorschach hiking; Right: Rorschach reading
What about now?
Rorschach died young, soon after inventing the test, and it took off in all sorts of directions outside of his control, especially in America. Our culture was very interested in “personality”: mysterious inner style, charisma, what makes you stand out in the crowd. But how could this personality be measured in an objective way? Here was a test that claimed to give access to it.
Office of Strategic Services for WWII selection
When WWII came along and the field of clinical psychology took off, the Rorschach was at the center of it. It was given to the Nazis at Nuremberg, to peasants in the jungle during the Vietnam War. It remained central through the 1960s, when reactions against expertise and authority of all kinds brought down both Freud and the Rorschach… but it was reinvented in the 1970s as a numerical, objective test, and survives to this day.
Most of the criticisms of the test today are out of date. Because the Rorschach is such a flash point, there has been a lot
of research on it. A major 2013 study in the leading psychology journal went through every study of everything the test was said to measure, rejected unproven or redundant scores, and kept the scores with strong scientific evidence. If you really believe in science, then science has validated the current Rorschach test. What people are rightly skeptical about is the pop-culture version.
In other words, the Rorschach test is not
“a Rorschach test.” What people mean when they call Brexit or Beyoncé “a Rorschach” is that anything means whatever you want it to mean. But the real test isn’t like that. The blots have objective visual qualities, the test has a specific history and use, it either works in a certain way or it doesn’t. The facts matter, not just our opinions about them.
÷ ÷ ÷
has written for Harper’s
, and The Paris Review
, and has translated the work of authors including Rainer Maria Rilke, Marcel Proust, and five Nobel Prize winners. He has been the recipient of Guggenheim, NEA, and Cullman Center fellowships. The Inkblots
is his first book.