Rorschach Inkblot TestThe Rorschach Inkblot Test is a projective psychological test consisting of 10 inkblots printed on cards (five in black and white, five in color) created in 1921 with the publication of Psychodiagnostik by Hermann Rorschach. During the 1940s and 1950s, the test was synonymous with clinical psychology. Throughout much of the 20th century, the Rorschach inkblot test was a commonly used and interpreted psychological test. In surveys in 1947 (Louttit and Browne) and 1961 (Sundberg), for instance, it was the fourth and first, respectively, most frequently used psychological test.

Despite its widespread use, it has also been the center of much controversy. It has often proven to be difficult for researchers to study the test and its results in any systematic manner, and the use of multiple kinds of scoring systems for the responses given to each inkblot has led to some confusion.

History of the Rorschach

Hermann Rorschach did not make it clear where he got the idea from the test. However, like most children of his time, he often played the popular game called Blotto (Klecksographie), which involved creating poem-like associations or playing charades with inkblots. The inkblots could be purchased easily in many stores at the time. It is also thought that a close personal friend and teacher, Konrad Gehring, may have also suggested the use of inkblots as a psychological tool.

When Eugen Bleuler coined the term schizophrenia in 1911, Rorschach took interest and wrote his dissertation about hallucinations (Bleuler was Rorschach’s dissertation chairperson). In his work on schizophrenia patients, Rorschach inadvertently discovered that they responded quite differently to the Blotto game than others. He made a brief report of this finding to a local psychiatric society, but nothing more came of it at the time. It wasn’t until he was established in his psychiatric practice in Russia’s Krombach hospital in Herisau in 1917 that he became interested in systematically studying the Blotto game.

Rorschach used about 40 inkblots in his original studies in 1918 through 1921, but he would administer only about 15 of them regularly to his patients. Ultimately he collected data from 405 subjects (117 non-patients which he used as his control group). His scoring method minimized the importance of content, instead focusing on how to classify responses by their different characteristics. He did this using a set of codes — now called scores — to determine if the response was talking about the whole inkblot (W), for instance, a large detail (D), or a smaller detail. F was used to score for form of the inkblot, and C was used to score whether the response included color.

In 1919 and 1920, he tried to find a publisher for his findings and the 15 inkblot cards he regularly used. However, every published balked at publishing all 15 inkblots because of printing costs. Finally in 1921, he found a publisher — the House of Bircher — willing to publish his inkblots, but only 10 of them. Rorschach reworked his manuscript to include only 10 of the 15 inkblots he most commonly used. (You can review the 10 Rorschach inkblots on Wikipedia; the rest of the Wikipedia entry on the Rorschach is full of significant factual errors.)

The printer, alas, was not very good at being true to the original inkblots. Rorschach’s original inkblots had no shading to them — they were all solid colors. The printer’s reproduction of them added shading. Rorschach reportedly was actually quite pleased with the introduction of this new addition to his inkblots. After publishing his monograph with the inkblots, entitled a Form Interpretation Test, he died in 1922 after being admitted to a hospital for abdominal pains. Rorschach was only 37 years old and had been formally working on his inkblot test just four years.

The Rorschach Scoring Systems

Prior to the 1970s, there were five primary scoring systems for how people responded to the inkblots. They were dominated by two — the Beck and the Klopfer systems. Three other that were used less often were the Hertz, Piotrowski and the Rapaport-Schafer systems. In 1969, John E. Exner, Jr. published the first comparison of these five systems entitled The Rorschach Systems.

The findings of Exner’s ground-breaking analysis were that there actually weren’t five scoring systems for the Rorschach. He concluded that the five systems differed so dramatically and significantly, it was as if five uniquely different Rorschach tests had been created. It was time to go back to the drawing board.

Given Exner’s disturbing findings, he decided to undertake the creation of a new, comprehensive Rorschach scoring system that would take into account the best components of these five existing systems, combined with extensive empirical research on each component. A foundation was established in 1968 and the significant research began into creating a new scoring system for the Rorschach. The result was that in 1973, Exner published the first edition of The Rorschach: A Comprehensive System. In it, he laid out the new scoring system that would become the new gold standard (and the only scoring system now taught).

What the Rorschach Measures

The Rorschach Inkblot test was not originally intended to be a projective measure of personality. Instead, it was meant to produce a profile of people with schizophrenia (or other mental disorders) based upon score frequencies. Rorschach himself was skeptical of his test being used as a projective measure.

The Rorschach is, at its most basic level, a problem-solving task that provides a picture of the psychology of the person taking it, and some level of understanding the person’s past and future behavior. Imagination is involved most often in the embellishment of a response, but the basic process of the task has little to do with imagination or creativity.

How the Rorschach Works

A person is shown an inkblot printed on a card and asked, “What might this be?” The responses are usually recorded verbatim (nowadays often with a recording device), because they will be later scored by the psychologist.

Exner broke down how a person responds to an inkblot into three primary phases. In phase 1, the person looks at the card while their brain encodes the stimulus (inkblot) and all its parts. They then classify the stimulus and its parts and an informal rank ordering occurs in the brain of potential responses. In phase 2, the person discards potential answers that aren’t ranked well, and censor other responses they think may be inappropriate. In phase 3, they select some of the remaining responses by reason of traits, styles, or other influences.

If a person responds to common contours of a blot, Exner theorized there was little projection going on. However, when a person starts to embellish on their answer or adding more information than they originally provided, it can be a sign that projection is now occurring. That is, the person is telling the examiner something about themselves or their lives, because they are going well beyond the features of the inkblot itself.

Once a person cycles through the 10 inkblots once and tells the psychologist what they saw in each inkblot, the psychologist will then take the person through each inkblot again, asking the person who is taking the test to help the psychologist see what they saw in their original responses. This is where the psychologist will get into some detail to clearly understand what and where a person has seen various aspects in each inkblot.

The Scoring of the Rorschach

The scoring of the Rorschach inkblot test is complex and requires extensive training and experience in administering the test. Only psychologists are properly trained and have the experience necessary to correctly interpret test results. Therefore any generic “inkblot test” you may take online or administered by another professional may be of little use or validity.

The Exner scoring system examines every aspect of the response — from how much of the inkblot is used, to what story is told about the response (if any), to the level of detail and type of content is offered about the inkblot. Scoring begins by examining the developmental quality of the response — that is, how well synthesized, ordinary, vague or arbitrary the response is.

The core of scoring revolves around coding the response according to all of the blot features that have contributed to the formation of the response. The following characteristics are coded:

  • Form
  • Movement – when any movement occurred in the response
  • Chromatic Color – when color is used in the response
  • Achromatic Color – when black, white or grays are used in the response
  • Shading-texture – when texture is used in the response
  • Shading-dimension – when dimension is used in the response with reference to shading
  • Shading-diffuse – when shading is used in the response
  • Form dimension – when dimension is used in the response without reference to shading
  • Pairs and reflections – when a pair or reflection is used in the response

Because many people respond to the inkblots in a complicated, detailed way, the scoring system uses the concept of “blends” to account for complex answers that take into account multiple objects or the way used to describe the object. Organizational activity of the response assesses how well-organized the response is. Last, form quality is assessed — that is, how well the response fits the inkblot (according to how the person taking the test describes it). If an inkblot looks like a bear, and a person describes it as a bear, this might take an “ordinary” form quality — perfectly acceptable, but not especially creative or imaginative.

There are, of course, many popular responses for inkblots that look like some object or creature in real life. The Exner scoring system takes this into account by providing extensive tables for each card about common responses and how they might be coded.

Rorschach Interpretation

Once each card’s responses is properly coded by a psychologist, an interpretative report is formulated based upon the responses’ scoring. The interpretative report seeks to integrate the findings from across all the responses on the test, so that one outlying response is not likely to impact the overall test’s findings.

The psychologist will first examine the validity of the test, stress tolerance and the amount of resources that available to the individual being examined versus the demands being made upon the individual at this time.

Next, the psychologist will examine the cognitive operations of the individual, their perceptual accuracy, flexibility of ideas and attitudes, their ability to temper and control their emotions, goal orientation, self-concept and interest and relationships with others. There are also a number of special indices that are used less often to determine suicidal ideation, depression, schizophrenia and other concerns. Usually these things can be more quickly assessed through a clinical interview, but might help to flesh out areas of concern in an individual where some questions remain.

* * *

The Rorschach is not some magical insight into a person’s soul. What it is is an empirically-sound, projective testing measure that has been backed up with nearly four decades of modern research (on top of the existing four decades since the test’s publication in 1921). Through asking people to express what they see in a simple set of ten inkblots, people can often show a little bit more of themselves than their conscious selves may have intended — leading to better insights into the underlying motivations of the person’s current issues and behaviors.