A test is born: origins of the rorschach inkblot technique

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Hamlet: Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost in shape of a camel?
Polonius: By the mass, and ‘tis like a camel indeed.
Phantom Images: Inkblots Before Hermann Rorschach
Everyone has seen a cloud shaped like an animal, or a sinister face in the embers of a dying fire. The human visual system has evolved to detect meaningful shapes in an ever-changing, ambiguous environment. It is not surprising, then, that we sometimes perceive a horse in the whorls of a wood tabletop, or a witch in the creases of a rumpled bedspread. The tendency seems universal and long-standing. There may well have been a time when Neanderthal children stood together on a hilltop, gazing at a cloud that looked like a mastodon.
Although usually regarded as an amusement for children, such phantom images have occasionally been accorded magical significance. For example, ovomancy (an old form of fortune-telling) involved interpretation of the shape of egg whites dropped into water, a practice that still survives in modified form in the reading of tea leaves and coffee grounds.1 Occasionally the shapes produced by chance have evoked religious fervor. As recently as 1993 pilgrims flocked to Watsonville, California, because an image of the Virgin Mary had been discerned in natural markings on the bark of an oak tree.2
A more secular attitude toward such images is reported from the Renaissance. Botticelli, artist of the famous portrait of Venus on an oyster shell, is said to have sought inspiration by throwing a paint sponge against a wall, then finding pictures among the chaotic splotches of color.3 In the mid-1800s the German physician Justinus Kerner published Die Klecksographie (the title can be translated as “Blot-o-graphy”), a somewhat melancholy volume consisting of 50 inkblots arranged into odd pictures and accompanied by poems.4 Kerner believed that the images came from “Hades” and “the other world.” His popular book set off the European fad of “Blotto,” in which inkblots were used to foretell the future or as a party game.5
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, when psychology first appeared in universities as a separate scientific field, several European and American psychologists began to use inkblots for research.6 Some investigators used inkblots to explore visual perception, hoping that the unfamiliar shapes would confuse and slow down the visual process and make it easier to study. Other early inkblot studies focused on memory processes. The most distinguished of the early researchers was Alfred Binet, the brilliant French psychologist who is remembered for his pioneering work on intelligence. Binet experimented with inkblots as a measure of imagination and considered including them in his famous intelligence test.
By the time that the Swiss psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach began his own studies during 1910 to 1920, a considerable body of scientific research with inkblots had already accumulated. Inkblots were in the air. Rorschach’s innovation lay not in his decision to use blots for research, but in his unique ideas about how they might be studied, and in his distinctive energy and creativity as a researcher.
Klex and his Inkblot Test
When he was a young man, Hermann Rorschach’s friends called him “Klex,” which in German means “Inkblot.” Because his father was an art teacher and Hermann himself possessed a talent for drawing, the nickname was apt. By a peculiar coincidence, it also foreshadowed the achievement that would later make him known throughout the world, the creation of the Rorschach Inkblot Test.
Born in Switzerland in 1884, Rorschach attended medical school in Zurich from 1904 to 1909. In that era, the Burghölzli Hospital at the University of Zurich was a leading European center of psychiatric research. Eugen Bleuler, who invented the term “schizophrenia” and published a seminal book on the disorder, was director of the Burghölzli. C. G. Jung, whose theories of archetypes and the collective unconscious later brought him international fame, was then a young up-and-coming psychiatrist and Bleuler’s assistant. During his medical studies, Rorschach was influenced by the scientific spirit and innovative ideas of both men.

Young Rorschach was an intelligent and dedicated student with distinctive non-medical interests. He felt deep attraction to the visual arts, especially painting and drawing. Furthermore, he developed a passion for the people and literature of Russia, and eventually married a young Russian woman, Olga Stempelin. After he received his medical degree in 1913 they lived briefly in Russia but soon returned to Switzerland, where he found employment in a small insane asylum.

Tall, slender, and blond, with a short moustache, Hermann Rorschach was even tempered, with a good sense of humor, and deeply devoted to his wife and two children. He was popular with his patients at the asylum and is said to have sometimes brought his pet monkey to visit them. He enjoyed working in the hospital’s wood shop, crafting small toys that he took home to his children. In contrast with Freud and some other major psychiatric figures of the era, Rorschach was unusually happy and enjoyed peaceful relationships with his colleagues and family.
As an obscure psychiatrist working in a small mental hospital, Hermann Rorschach would probably be forgotten today had it not been for his enduring commitment to scientific research. Like many psychiatrists educated in Zurich, Rorschach was impressed by Sigmund Freud’s audacious new theory of psychoanalysis, and published several case studies from a psychoanalytic perspective. Following the example of Bleuler and Jung, Rorschach also carried out systematic research programs, often during his own personal time.

At first Rorschach’s energies as a researcher focused on Swiss religious sects that would now be termed “cults.” For instance, he investigated one group whose leader, Johannes Binggeli, taught that his penis was sacred. Binggeli’s followers considered his urine to be holy and sometimes used it instead of wine for Holy Communion. He practiced sex with young girls to “exorcise demons” and was eventually arrested for incest with his own daughter.7 Studying such sects Rorschach made several discoveries that even now would be regarded as significant. For example, he established that the same or similar cults had existed for centuries in Switzerland, that they typically flourished in those parts of the country where weaving was a common trade, and that the same families of weavers were often involved in the cults from one generation to the next over a period of several centuries.

In 1918 Rorschach unexpectedly set aside his study of cults and devoted himself to a much different research project involving inkblots. In a space of three years he developed a series of blots that could be used for testing, administered them to hundreds of patients and normal people, and published the book that established his place in the history of 20th century psychology.
It is unclear how Rorschach first developed the idea of using inkblots as a psychological test, especially because his writings make no mention of earlier inkblot research by Binet and other psychologists. He had almost certainly played Blotto as a child and probably read Kerner’s popular book Klecksographie. According to later reminiscences by his wife, Rorschach was also impressed by a historical novel about Leonardo da Vinci, in which the Renaissance artist described how he had seen devils, monsters, and beautiful landscapes in the damp spots on walls and the scum on stagnant water.
Rorschach had carried out brief inkblot experiments with children as early as 1911 but then set the topic aside for more than five years. His interest was revived by the dissertation of Szymon Hens, a Polish medical student working in Zurich. Hens had tried without much success to distinguish psychotic patients from normal persons by comparing the images that they saw in inkblots. When Hens’ inkblots were published in 1917 Rorschach was stirred to pursue the topic again, but taking his own much different approach.
Drawing on his talents as an artist, Rorschach created a large collection of inkblots.8 Some were made by dripping black ink onto sheets of paper, which he folded to create symmetric patterns. Others were composed with delicately tinted colors. He deleted portions of some blots and enhanced others with a pen. After constructing a variety of blots, he began to experiment by showing them to patients and acquaintances and asking them to describe what they saw.
Based on his preliminary observations Rorschach concluded that people’s perceptions of the blots fell into several broad categories. For instance, some people tended to see movement (waiters serving food, a man falling into a pond), whereas others saw images characterized by color (fallen rose leaves, a brightly colored dress). Furthermore, different people seemed to focus their attention on much different areas of the blots. If two people looked at the same blot, the first might see images in the tiny splotchy details at the blot’s edge, whereas the second person might describe the entire blot as a single image. Rorschach concluded that these diverse types of responses reflected fundamental personality differences among the individuals taking the test. Accordingly, he developed a variety of scoring categories such as Movement, Color and Whole Card responses.
From his initial collection of blots Rorschach eventually selected 15 that tended to elicit the scoring categories that struck him as most important. For instance, he selected several blots because they tended to evoke descriptions of people in motion and others that elicited responses based on color. Using this first set of “Rorschach cards” he proceeded to administer the new test to over 400 normal individuals and psychiatric patients.
As Rorschach had hoped, the results of his first extended study confirmed his theories. Just as expected, when psychiatric patients and normal people described what they saw in the inkblots, they revealed their innermost personalities, intellectual strengths and weaknesses, and psychological problems. Rorschach hurriedly wrote a book summarizing his research. One publisher accepted it but was willing to include only 6 of the 15 inkblots, apparently because the color printing process was expensive. With the help of a friend, Rorschach eventually located a second publisher who agreed to include 10 of the blots.
Rorschach’s first and only book, Psychodiagnostics,9 was published in June 1921. In the ensuing months he continued to develop his ideas about the test and delivered a lecture to the Zurich Psychoanalytic Society on the potential usefulness of inkblots in clinical practice. Except for a small circle of Rorschach’s closest associates, however, psychiatrists paid little attention to his new test. His book sold only a few copies. It is said that he was disappointed and uncharacteristically depressed by its cool reception. Then, nine months after the publication of Psychodiagnostics, Rorschach entered a hospital complaining of abdominal pains. On the next day, April 2, 1922, he died from a perforated appendix with peritonitis. He was 37 years old.
Rorschach’s writings on the inkblot test had been extremely limited. He left the blots themselves, his book Psychodiagnostics, and his lecture to the Psychoanalytic Society, which was published posthumously. Although Eugen Bleuler eulogized him as “the hope of an entire generation of Swiss Psychiatry,”10 Rorschach’s untimely death seemed to have extinguished the hope before it could be fulfilled. Few or none of his contemporaries in Zurich foresaw that he had left behind a legacy that would be cherished by psychologists for the next 80 years.
Rorschach’s Central Ideas: Movement, Color, and EB
There is a popular stereotype about the Rorschach Technique, that a person’s responses are usually interpreted according to a comic-book version of Freudian symbolism. A threatening lion seen in a blot means that a person has unconscious aggressive impulses. Eyes mean that the person feels “watched” and is suspicious or paranoid. Long, cigar-shaped objects mean -- ah, but that goes without saying, doesn’t it?
Although some psychologists use the test in this way, it is not at all what Hermann Rorschach had in mind. Rorschach was interested not in the sexual or aggressive images that people saw in the blots, so much as in the movement and color of the images. If a woman patient saw an inkblot as a monster that vaguely reminded her of her father, Rorschach would probably have been most interested in finding out whether the monster appeared to be moving, and whether the color of the blot had affected the woman’s choice of an image. Rorschach’s central idea, to which he devoted the most pages in Psychodiagnostics, was that perception of movement or color in the inkblots revealed a person’s fundamental orientation toward reality.
Rorschach considered a Movement response (M) to be one in which the person taking the test saw a human engaged in movement, such as “two Alpinists climbing a mountain” or “a ballerina doing a pirouette.” Somewhat paradoxically, he also scored an inkblot image as containing M if it involved “passive movement,” such as “a vampire bent over his victim” or “a school child sitting in a desk.” Animals seen in the blots could be scored for M if they were engaged in “human-like activity,” but not otherwise. Thus “two dogs performing in the circus” or “a bear on a bicycle” would be scored as M, but “a cat catching a mouse” would not.
Rorschach believed that a person who gave a large number of M responses to the inkblot test was “introversive” or “turned inward” toward the world of thought and fantasy. In Rorschach’s formulation, introversive people were calm, reflective, and creative, but tended to be physically clumsy, awkward in social situations, and have difficulty adapting to everyday realities. An extremely introversive person might be brilliant but gawky, like the “nutty genius” characters in some movies.
The other central category in Rorschach’s system was Color (C). A C response was one in which a person’s perception of the blot was influenced by the ink’s color. For example, if a person described a red blot as “blood,” or a blue patch as “the sky,” the image was considered to be a “Pure Color” response. Rorschach regarded such responses as particularly important because they were based purely on the color of the blot and nothing else.11 Also significant were responses based on both the blot’s color and its shape or form. For example, if a person reported that a particular blot looked like a lion because it had a tawny yellow color and the shape of a lion, then the response was scored as “Form-Color.” For Rorschach, the crucial issue was whether color had clearly influenced a person’s response to a blot. Thus, if a person said that a particular red and yellow area of the blot looked like “fire,” Rorschach considered this a C response even if the person did not explicitly mention the words “red” and “yellow.”

Rorschach believed that C responses were intimately related to affect (the experience and expression of emotion), and that a person who gave a large number of Color responses to the inkblot test was “extratensive or “turned outward” toward the world of external reality. In Rorschach’s formulation, extratensive people were socially adroit, practical, and adaptable to the demands of the outer world, but tended to be restless, emotional, and impulsive. Rhett Butler and Scarlet O’Hare in the classic movie “Gone With the Wind” might be thought of as male and female versions of extreme extratension.

Rorschach’s “introversion” and “extratension” bore a family resemblance to the concepts of “introversion” and “extraversion” that had been proposed a few years earlier by C.G. Jung. The similarity is understandable, considering that Jung and Rorschach both lived in Zurich, were personally acquainted, and read each other’s work.12 However, Jung and Rorschach disagreed concerning the relationship of introversion to extraversion/extratension. Jung considered introversion and extraversion to be polar opposites, so that a particular person was either introverted or extraverted. In contrast, Rorschach considered introversion and extratension to be separate and potentially compatible personality features, so that a particular person could be both introversive and extratensive.
Rorschach’s conviction that introversion and extratension could exist simultaneously in the same person was expressed in the most important score in his test, the Erlebnistypus, which is usually translated into English as Experience Balance or “EB.” EB was simply the ratio between the number of M responses in a Rorschach protocol and the number of C responses.13 For example, if a particular patient gave 7 M responses to the blots and 2 C responses, then EB was 7:2. According to Rorschach, this ratio reflected the “balance” between introversion and extratension within the personality, and therefore revealed an individual’s basic experience and orientation of reality. Rorschach contended that every person fell into one of four “Experience Types,” as indicated by EB:
(1) Introversive Type. Introversives are focused on “inner experience” and have substantially more M responses than C responses (for example, EB = 7:2). Though they possess strongly introversive qualities such as intelligence and creativity, they are lacking in the social skills and adaptability associated with extratension. One might say that Introversives “live too much in their own heads” and are awkward when handling the everyday details of life.
(2) Extratensive Type. Extratensives are focused on “outer experience” and have substantially more C responses than M responses (for example, EB = 2:7). Extratensives are the mirror image of Introversives: Although they are adaptable and can relate easily to other people in social situations, they are lacking in the imagination and emotional stability associated with introversion. At their worst, Extratensives might be described as flighty, impulsive, or shallow.
(3) Dilated Type. Dilated individuals (also called “Ambiequal”) have a moderate-to-high number of both M and C responses (for example, EB = 4:5 or EB = 5:4). Dilated individuals have the best of both worlds because they possess a full measure of both introversion and extratension. They are thoughtful and socially adept, creative and adaptable to external reality. According to Rorschach, artists tend to belong to the Dilated type.
(4) Coarctative Type. Coarctative individuals have a low number and approximately equal number of M and C responses (for example, EB = 2:1 or EB = 1:2). Coarctated individuals are indeed unfortunate because they lack the resources of either the Introversive or the Extratensive types. They possess neither the creativity and emotional stability of the Introversive, nor the social ease and adaptability of the Extratensive. According to Rorschach, unintelligent people and depressed patients tend to belong to the Coarctative Type.
Movement, Color, and EB. Just Another Kind of Horoscope?
It is easy to think of people who fit Rorschach’s four EB types: brilliant but awkward Introversives, energetic and impulsive Extratensives, well-rounded and productive Dilated types, and pitiful, ineffectual Coarctative types. But the mere fact that such examples can be called to mind does not mean that Rorschach’s theories were correct. After all, it is equally easy to think of people who exemplify astrological sun-signs, such as domineering Leos and well-balanced Libras, even though sun-signs bear absolutely no consistent relationship to personality. So the question legitimately arises whether Rorschach’s theories about Movement, Color, introversion, and extratension were correct, or just a 20th century version of sun signs and horoscopes.
On the “plus” side, and after more than 80 years of research, the scientific evidence is overwhelming that Rorschach and Jung were on the right track when they identified introversion and extraversion as important aspects of human personality.

Psychology books now routinely identify introversion/extraversion as one of the “Big Five” personality traits (the other four are agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness to experience).

According to the modern concept of introversion/extraversion, introverts are far less likely to seek or enjoy social contact than extraverts are. This modern concept of social introversion/extraversion differs somewhat from the ideas of Rorschach and Jung, who believed that introverts direct their attention and interests to the “inner world” of thoughts and imagination (turning inward), whereas extraverts direct their attention to the “outer world” of physical and social events (turning outward). Nevertheless, the modern view of introversion/extraversion overlaps considerably with Rorschach and Jung’s ideas, so that these two thinkers (especially Jung) are generally given credit for originating the idea.
As it turns out, Jung was probably correct when he concluded that introversion and extraversion are polar opposites. Psychologists today view Introversion/extraversion today as a single continuum. Strongly introverted people fall at one extreme of the continuum and strongly extraverted people at the opposite extreme. The majority of people fall toward the middle and are neither extremely introverted nor extremely extraverted. Contrary to Rorschach’s view, there do not seem to be “dilated” types that are both extremely introverted and extremely extraverted at the same time.
A person’s level of introversion/extraversion is now known to be fairly stable over time. In addition, introversion/extraversion has been studied among the members of both European and non-European cultures, and the findings support Rorschach and Jung’s contention that the trait is a universal feature of human personality. Introversion/extraversion is related to the way people spend their free time (introverts prefer to curl up with a good book or engage in solitary hobbies, whereas extraverts would rather hang out with their friends or attend a social function) and the type of employment they find most congenial (introverts do better in jobs that involve a substantial amount of time working alone, such as accounting or research, whereas extraverts thrive in jobs with substantial interpersonal contact, such as social work or sales).
Although research has supported Rorschach’s basic insight that introversion and extraversion constitute important aspects of personality, other aspects of his theories have not fared so well. His picture of the EB “types” is certainly incorrect. Although Rorschach thought that Introversive individuals tend to have abstract intelligence and be socially awkward, research has shown that there is no particular connection between introversion and intelligence, or between intelligence and social awkwardness. Similarly, although Rorschach portrayed Extratensive individuals as impulsive and emotionally unstable, research has shown that impulsiveness and emotional instability are generally unrelated to extraversion, and instead represent a completely different personality trait, usually referred to as “neuroticism.”
From the perspective of present-day personality psychology, Rorschach’s EB types erroneously mixed together four aspects of personality that are actually quite different from each other -- introversion/extraversion, intelligence, creativity, and neuroticism14. Furthermore, Rorschach’s theories about M and C responses and EB have not held up well in the years since his death. By the1960s the results from systematic studies were quite clear: M and C responses on the Rorschach Inkblot Test bear little or no relationship to what psychologists now call introversion/extraversion.15 Except for a few Rorschach devotees, personality researchers long ago abandoned EB as a measure of this personality trait.
From the perspective of psychological science at the beginning of the 21st century, Rorschach’s ideas about M, C, and their relationship to introversion/extraversion appear a little strange and somewhat quaint. However, even good scientists can be misled by bad ideas. Sir Isaac Newton not only discovered the laws of gravitation and invented calculus, but also believed in astrology and spent his later years doing research on the subject. More recently, the brilliant Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling dismayed many of his fellow chemists by making extreme and ultimately discredited claims for the therapeutic value of Vitamin C. Thus, even though Rorschach was mistaken about M and C, the scientific quality of his work needs to be judged in a broader context. And in fact, it appears that although Rorschach was wrong, he was wrong in a fairly intelligent way.
First in his favor, Rorschach based his ideas regarding M and C on respectable scientific ideas that were current in his day. Rorschach’s hypothesis that introversion was related to the perception of movement was not simply plucked from thin air, but instead was based on the work of John Mourly Vold, a 19th century Norwegian philosopher who had conducted extensive psychological research on the relationship between muscular movement and dreams (philosophy and psychology were closely related in that era).16 Mourly Vold believed that when muscular activity was inhibited during sleep, imagery involving movement (i.e. dreams) was stimulated. He reported several experiments in support of his theory. For example, Mourly Vold asked a group of his students to sleep with a cloth tape wrapped around their ankles, to inhibit their nighttime movements. Consistent with his theory, the students reported a large number of dreams that involved highly active movement.
Building on Mourly Vold’s ideas, Rorschach conjectured that (a) introversion involves inhibited movement, and therefore (b) introversives should see more imagery involving movement when they view inkblots. Thus, although Rorschach’s ideas about introversion and M responses may strike us as strange today, they were not especially exotic at the time. In fact, Rorschach was simply taking Mourly Vold’s theory and extending it into a new area of scientific investigation. Similarly, Rorschach’s ideas concerning extraversion and C responses were influenced by the color theories of his friend and fellow-psychiatrist E. Fankhauser.17
A second point can be made in Rorschach’s favor as a scientist: He was correct when he hypothesized that people’s personality traits can be closely related to what they perceive. Daily life is full of examples, but a particularly clever one comes from Dave Barry the humorist, who once commented that women can perceive individual dirt molecules, whereas men only notice dirt when it forms clumps large enough to support commercial agriculture.18 In a more serious vein, psychological research has established some interesting links between personality traits and perception. For example, it has been shown that hostile individuals are particularly likely to perceive other people as hostile.19 Similarly, anxious individuals are likely to notice threatening stimuli in their environment.20
As can be seen, Rorschach was heading in the right direction when he proposed a connection between personality and perception. His general idea was right even though his specific hypotheses about M and C were not. With 80 more years of psychological research behind us, we can see where he went wrong. Personality is most likely to affect perceptions when important motivations are involved. Thus, a particular individual is more likely to perceive hostility in the environment if he is highly motivated to protect himself, and more likely to perceive threatening stimuli if he is motivated to avoid them. In the absence of such motivations, personality usually does not affect the perception of simple visual categories such as movement or color.
As this book will show, the devotees of his Inkblot Test tended to stray farther and farther away from good science during the years after his death. However, the blame cannot be fixed on Rorschach himself, who showed the qualities of a talented psychological researcher, though probably not a “genius,” as he has sometimes been called.21 Rorschach had good ideas (even though they were not always correct) and attempted to relate them to the scientific theories current in his time. However, any evaluation of Rorschach as a scientist must also consider the scientific quality of his masterwork, Psychodiagnostics. But before taking that step we will discuss some of the other important scores that Rorschach included in his test.
Rorschach’s Other Scores
At the center of Rorschach’s approach to the inkblot test were EB and its two components, M and C. In addition, he included in Psychodiagnostics a variety of scores that he considered important, based on intuition and his observations while administering the test to hundreds of patients. Research during the past 80 years has shown that a few of these scores possess some potential value in clinical work. Others are probably of little value, but deserve attention because they are still taken very seriously by psychologists and have been used to assess patients for the past 80 years. The scores developed by Rorschach will re-appear again and again in this book, as the story of the Rorschach Inkblot Test unfolds from the 1920s to the present.
1. Response Frequency (R). One of the simplest scores yielded by Rorschach’s test is R, the total number of responses that a patient gives to the blots. Most people report 1 to 3 images for each of the ten cards, so that R typically lies between 10 and 30. Not surprisingly, R tends to be correlated with an individual’s verbal intelligence: Individuals with high verbal intelligence tend to describe more things in the blots. Thus, when standard intelligence testing is impractical, a psychologist can sometimes obtain a rough idea of a patient’s intelligence by administering the inkblot test and counting the total number of responses.
2. F+%. Rorschach was less interested in what people saw in the blots than in why they saw it. As we’ve seen, he placed particular emphasis on responses that had been suggested by a blot’s color, for example when a patient reported seeing a red blot as “blood” or a blue blot as “the sky.” In addition, he was interested in responses that had been suggested by the blot’s shape or “form.” Such responses were scored as “F”.
Many images that patients reported to Rorschach corresponded closely to the shape of the inkblots. For instance, one of his inkblot obviously resembles a four-legged animal. If a patient reported that this blot looked like “a pig,” Rorschach considered the response to have “good fit” or “good form quality” and assigned a score of F+. On the other hand, if a patient reported that this same blot looked like “a hat” (which it definitely does not), Rorschach considered the response to have “poor fit” or “poor form quality,” and assigned it a score of F-.
After a patient had completed the inkblot test, Rorschach computed F+% by adding together the total number of responses scored as F+, and then dividing this number by the total number of responses scored as F. For example, if a person gave 4 F+ responses and 9 F- responses, then F+% was 31% (4/13). Rorschach noticed that F+% scores tended to be substantially lower among patients with schizophrenia than among other patients. Later research confirmed his observation, so that F+% is widely recognized, even by critics of the Rorschach test, as possessing genuine validity as a clinical measures.
3. Pure Color (Pure C), Color-Form (CF), and Form-Color (FC). In Rorschach’s formulations, C responses were associated with emotion and impulsivity, whereas F responses were associated with self-regulation and adaptation. Rorschach scored C in three ways. First were “Pure Color” or “Pure C” responses, in which the image had color but no form (seeing a red blot as “blood,” or a blue patch as “the sky).” According to Rorschach, Pure C responses represented impulsivity in its purest state, without any self-regulation. Second were “Color-Form” or “CF” responses, which were based primarily on color but secondarily on form (seeing a yellow blot remotely shaped like a bird as “a canary”). Such responses also indicated impulsivity, but with a small dash of self-regulation. Third were “Form-Color” or FC responses, which were based primarily on form but influenced by color (seeing a long, thin squiggle of green ink as “a caterpillar”). FC responses were said to indicate the successful regulation of emotions according to outer or social demands.
Rorschach recommended that the Pure C and CF responses (which indicated a tendency to uncontrolled impulsivity) should be added together and then compared with the number of FC responses (which indicated the ability to regulate emotion). This comparison would reveal how well a person could control his or her own impulses. According to Rorschach, individuals who showed a high number of C and CF responses but a low number of FC responses were impulsive, demanding, selfish, egocentric, and incapable of empathy toward other people.
4. Color Shock. Rorschach noticed that some patients took considerably longer to give responses to the five colored inkblots than to the remaining black and white blots. Again connecting color with emotion, Rorschach concluded that the patients’ delayed response to the colored cards, which he termed “Color Shock,” was a sign of the neurotic repression of emotion. Thus, patients who hesitated when viewing the colored blots were thought to be experiencing strong emotion, but keeping it tamped down and out of awareness.
5. Wholes (W), Details (D), and Small Details (Dd). As mentioned earlier, while developing the test, Rorschach noticed that some patients tended to give responses that incorporated the entire inkblot into a single image. Rorschach called these “Whole” or “W” responses. In contrast, some responses were based on prominent areas of the blot (“This part over here looks like a chicken”), or on small, features (“This little squiggle on the bottom looks kind of like a face.”). Images based on large or prominent areas of the blot were termed “Detail” or “D” responses by Rorschach, and those based on smaller features were designated as “Small Detail” or “Dd” responses.
In Rorschach’s opinion, the relative proportion of W, D and Dd responses could reveal important aspects of personality. A comparatively large proportion of W responses could indicate intelligence and the ability to combine information imaginatively. On the other hand, a high proportion of D or Dd responses was typical of unintelligent individuals, “pedants,” and “grumblers.”22 Although subsequent research has not borne out Rorschach’s hypotheses about pedants and grumblers, it has provided some limited support for his ideas about W responses: Several studies have found that an above-average number of W responses is correlated with intelligence, although the relationship is probably weak and somewhat inconsistent.
6. Space Responses (S). The instructions for Rorschach’s inkblot test asked the patient to describe what the blots looked like. Occasionally, however, a patient would report seeing an image in the white spaces of the blot, outlined by the ink (“This white part here in the middle might be a lamp”). Because such Space responses (S) did not conform to the test instructions, Rorschach believed that they always indicated a “tendency to opposition.”23 He reported that S responses were most common among “negativistic” schizophrenic patients and “stubborn, eccentric” normal individuals.
7. Percent of Animal Responses (A%). Rorschach’s inkblots are full of animal shapes: Psychodiagnostics reported that between 25 to 50% of the images reported by patients involved animals. In general, Rorschach showed little interest in the content of what was seen in the blots. However, animal content was an important exception. In his opinion, patients who reported an above-average proportion of animals in the blots (A%) were exhibiting “stereotypy,” an abnormal lack of intelligence, imagination, and originality. Although deeply intrigued by Freud’s theories and their emphasis on symbolism, Rorschach did not take the obvious step of interpreting animal content as a symbol of unconscious, primitive (“animal”) impulses, although later users of the inkblot test would do so.
Rorschach as Researcher
In Psychodiagnostics Rorschach insisted that his ambitious new ideas were based on his own experimental observations, not on armchair theorizing. He had gathered data from over 100 normal individuals and almost 200 patients with schizophrenia, as well as smaller groups of epileptics, mentally retarded patients, and “manic depressives” (patients with major depression or bipolar disorder). Before ending our discussion of Rorschach, it is worth taking a closer look at his study and evaluating its quality as a piece of scientific research.
The experiment described in Psychodiagnostics has two features that elevate it above virtually all other psychiatric reports of its time. First, it was a group study involving two large samples of subjects (normal individuals and patients with schizophrenia). Today we take it for granted that most research involves substantial groups of subjects, but in Rorschach’s era such studies were rare in psychiatry. Instead, case studies based on one or two subjects were the norm. For example, it is instructive to compare Psychodiagnostics with Freud’s books, which often presented complex theories based on observations from a single case study. For many decades after the appearance of Rorschach’s work, Freud’s followers continued to rely heavily on the case study method, and Freud himself openly denigrated group studies as a method for testing his psychoanalytic theories.24
The second striking feature of Psychodiagnostics is its emphasis on quantification, the use of numbers to represent its findings. By present-day standards Rorschach’s approach to numbers seems primitive: His book does not report even the simplest descriptive statistics, such as means (averages), standard deviations, or percentages. Instead, the tables in Psychodiagnostics schematically display the rough range of scores that might be expected from particular groups of people. For example, one table indicates that artists typically give more than 5 M responses to the inkblots, people of normal intelligence give 2 to 4, and depressed patients give 0.25
The tables in Psychodiagnostics are rough-hewn and approximate. After writing down the scores from his subjects, Rorschach apparently “eyeballed” the numbers and then summarized his impressions. But although this approach now seems remarkably crude, it was a substantial improvement over most other psychiatric research of the time. By 1921, the year Psychodiagnostics was published, numerical findings were routinely reported by psychologists who worked as researchers in universities. However, psychiatrists, who were medical doctors, tended to lag behind. For instance, we might think again of Freud, the leading psychiatric theorist of the era, whose work was virtually devoid of numbers, statistics, or quantitative analyses.
Good science does not always require quantification and numerical analyses. As a single example, Eugen Bleuler, the Zurich psychiatrist whose work influenced Rorschach, developed his brilliant insights about schizophrenia without resorting to numbers. As Bleuler’s example illustrates, valuable scientific insights can sometimes be extracted from unaided clinical observation, particularly when a particular field of science is in its early stages. However, as the field advances numbers become indispensable. For example, despite his brilliance and life-long study of schizophrenia, Bleuler never realized that the disease has a strong genetic component. That insight did not come until the last quarter of the 20th century, when statistical analyses of health records in Denmark26 revealed the patterns of inheritance.
Quantitative analyses can reveal patterns not evident to ordinary observation, such as the heritability of schizophrenia. In addition, the precision of numerical analyses is of enormous value because it allows scientific theories and data to be rigorously tested and scrutinized for errors. For example, as we’ve already mentioned, Rorschach reported that the number of M responses given by depressed patients was 0. Subsequent research has shown that this number is much too low, and that the number of M responses among depressed patients is probably about 4.27 The important point is not that Rorschach was wrong about M in depressed patients, but that he reported his findings numerically, and with enough precision, so that later researchers have been able to detect and correct his mistakes.
Compared to other psychiatric studies of its time, the research reported by Rorschach in Psychodiagnostics is exemplary. One might expect his scientific findings to be exceptionally reliable as well. But here lies an intriguing paradox. As the later chapters of this book will chronicle, in spite of Rorschach’s diligence as a scientist many of his central conclusions were seriously in error. For example, although he concluded that Color responses are associated with affect and impulsivity, subsequent research has shown him to be mistaken.28 Similarly, his claims that S (Space) is an indication of oppositional or “negativistic” tendencies,29 that “Color Shock” is a sign of repressed emotion,30 and that Depressives do not give M or C responses, have not withstood later scientific examination.
How could Rorschach, one of the best psychiatric researchers of his time, be so wrong? A perusal of Psychodiagnostics reveals that Rorschach made several blunders that are all too familiar to scientists today. Research is full of such hidden traps. Investigators usually learn to avoid them through an unpleasant process, by painfully blundering into particular pits themselves, or by learning from other researchers who did. Only because researchers in psychology and psychiatry have been falling into such hidden traps and mapping their location for the past 80 years, can we now see with benefit of hindsight where Rorschach went wrong and why.
First, Rorschach based many of his conclusions on samples that were simply too small. Rorschach’s group of patients with schizophrenia was large (nearly 200 subjects), and perhaps for this reason his findings about schizophrenia have held up reasonably well over time. However, his other patient samples were tiny. For example, his study included only 14 manic-depressive patients, of whom several were manic rather than depressed.31 Thus, Rorschach’s conclusions about the performance of depressed patients on the inkblot test (for example, that they typically do not give M or C responses) were probably based on fewer than 10 individuals, far too small a sample to form reliable estimates.
Second, aside from inkblot scores, Rorschach apparently lacked a good method for measuring the personal qualities of his subjects. For example, the tables in Psychodiagnostics show that he classified his normal subjects in a variety of ways, using labels such as “intelligent,” “imaginative,” “abstract,” “good-humored,” “indolent,” “negativistic,” “grumblers,” “stubborn,” and “apart from the world.” How did he measure such a wide variety of characteristics? Although his book does not provide an answer to this question, there is not the slightest chance that he used formal tests such as Alfred Binet’s intelligence scale. Most likely Rorschach relied on interviews and personal impressions, which are now known to be defective, and often completely useless, for measuring characteristics such as intelligence, imagination, and negativism.32 It is sobering to realize that many of Rorschach’s most influential conclusions, for instance that M is related to intelligence and imagination, and that S is related to negativism, were reached without using a good measure of either intelligence, imagination, or negativism.
The third problem with Rorschach’s study is somewhat subtler than the previous two: He failed to keep inkblot scores completely separate from other information about subjects. Hermann Rorschach administered the inkblot test to subjects, and Hermann Rorschach also evaluated their other characteristics (intelligence, imagination, impulsivity, and so on). The trouble with such an arrangement is that it opens the door to subjectivity, bias, and the human tendency to find what one is expecting.33
For example, let us imagine that Rorschach the researcher is just beginning to form a hypothesis that C is related to impulsivity. He administers the inkblots to a man who gives a very high number of C responses. Afterwards Rorschach estimates the man’s impulsivity. Is Rorschach’s estimate likely to be influenced by the C responses? Will the responses lead Rorschach to give a higher estimate of impulsivity than he would have otherwise? The answer, based on years of psychological research, is quite clear: Rorschach’s estimate of the man’s impulsivity is very likely to be influenced by the C responses, even if Rorschach tries very hard not to be influenced, and even if he believes that he was not influenced.34 At the end of his study, Rorschach will find that, just as he expected, people who give a high number of C responses are also impulsive. He will not realize that he himself created this relationship, by inadvertently giving higher estimates of impulsivity for subjects with a high number of C responses.
The tendency of innocent but incautious scientists to find what they expect is well documented, and accounts for some of the most fascinating stories in the history of science. We will mention only two. First is the case of the distinguished American astronomer Percival Lowell, who reported in the 1920s that while viewing the planet Mars he had observed extensive canal systems constructed by intelligent beings. Lowell published detailed diagrams of the canals, which were verified by some astronomers but fiercely disputed by others. When interplanetary probes eventually visited the planet and photographed it from a close distance, no canals were discovered, and certainly no intelligent beings. Lowell had found detailed evidence for what he expected, even though it was not really there.
A second and far more disturbing case is that of the Portuguese neurologist Egas Moniz, who in the 1930s developed what seemed to be a highly effective treatment for schizophrenia. A sharp blade was inserted into the patient’s head through an eye-socket or a small hole in the temple, and then manipulated to destroy a portion of the prefrontal cortex of the patient’s brain. Moniz reported that the procedure, which he called prefrontal lobotomy, was highly effective and had no adverse side effects. Surgeons throughout Europe and the United States reported similar positive effects. Moniz was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1949 for his discovery. Subsequent research showed that the operation was ineffective as a treatment for schizophrenia, and often had serious negative effects on patients’ memory and other mental capacities.
Expectations can shape and contaminate an experimenter’s careful observations. For this reason, researchers over the past 80 years have learned to construct thick firewalls into their experiments, so that one source of information is kept completely separate from another. If Hermann Rorschach were to repeat his study today, he would probably be advised to arrange for one experimenter to administer and score the inkblot tests, and for a separate experimenter to evaluate the subjects’ intelligence, imagination, impulsivity and other characteristics. Each experimenter would remain completely ignorant of the other’s findings until the end of the study, when the two sets of data could be combined and compared. Only in this way could the inkblot results and the other information about subjects be prevented from contaminating each other.
Rorschach’s failure to take such precautions does not diminish his stature as a researcher who was far in advance of his time. However, the lack of experimental safeguards probably explains, at least in part, why Rorschach reported several important findings that later investigators have been unable to duplicate. As we will see, during the 1930s many psychologists in America would accept Rorschach’s research results as a brilliant confirmation of his theories. In retrospect, however, it can be seen that his results fit his theories too well. Eager to uncover the basic elements of human personality, Rorschach sometimes saw patterns in the data that were not there, much as one of his patients might see a ballerina or a bear in the colors and ambiguous contours of an inkblot.

1 Robert Todd Carroll, The Skeptic’s Dictionary, “Fortune Telling,” at www.skepdic.com.

2 Robert Todd Carroll, The Skeptic’s Dictionary, “Our Lady of Watsonville,” at www.skepdic.com.

3 Leonardo da Vinci’s Introduction for the Painter, as quoted by Zubin, Eron, and Schumer, 1965, pp. 166-167.

4 Kerner’s book is discussed by Ellenberger, 1954, p. 196, and by Zubin, Eron, and Schumer, 1965, p. 168.

5 Although highly popular in the late 1800s, inkblot games eventually disappeared from sight. However, a new inkblot game, “Thinkblots,” has recently appeared on the shelves of American toy stores.

6 For a discussion of psychological research before Rorschach that used inkblots, see Zubin, Eron, and Schumer, 1965, pages 168-171.

7 See Ellenberger, 1954, p. 185

8 According to Bruno Klopfer and Douglas Kelley (1946, p. 3) and Miale and Selzer (1975, p. 17), Rorschach experimented with “thousands” of inkblots, but Exner (1993, p. xxx) says the number was 40.

9 The German title is Psychodiagnostik.

10 Bleuler’s quote is given by Walter Morganthaler on p. 1 of the English translation of Psychodiagnostics

11 “Pure Color” is the current terminology for such responses. Rorschach called them “primary color answers.”

12 In Psychodiagnostics, pages 81-83, Rorschach insisted, quite rightly, that his own concepts were not the same as Jung’s. However, Jung later modified his own thinking, perhaps partly due to Rorschach’s influence, so that the two men’s ideas regarding introversion and extraversion eventually became more similar.

13 Rorschach’s system for counting the number of Color responses weighted some types of Color responses more heavily than others. Specifically, “Pure Color” responses, which are discussed later in this chapter, were given a weight of 1.5, “Form-Color” responses a weight of 1.0, and “Color-Form” responses a weight of .5.

14 These four traits are virtually uncorrelated except for intelligence and creativity, which have a low to moderate correlation with each other.

15 Give citation from Wysocki (1956) on lack of correlation of M and SumC with self-report AND JUDGES’ estimation of introversion/extraversion. Also, studies by Greenwald, also Meyer. Also, summaries of results by Frank.

16 A thorough discussion of the effect of Mourly Vold’s theories on Hermann Rorschach can be found in Ellenberger, 1954, pp. 200-202, or in the same article published as Ellenberger, xxxx, pp. xxx-xxx.

17 See Ellenberger, 1954, pp. 202-203, or Ellenberger , xxxx, pp. xxx-xxx.

18 Get citation for Dave Barry quote, and also get his permission.

19 Get citation for finding that hostile people perceive other people as hostile.

20 Insert citation for Rich McNally’s study on perception of anxiety stimuli.

21 Insert citations to a few articles that have called Rorschach a “genius,” including Ellenberger (1954), and others.....

22 For interpretations of W, D and Dd, see Psychodiagnostics, Table V, p. 44.

23 For interpretations of S responses, see Psychodiagnostics, p. 39.

24 Include quote from Freud that denigrates research projects with groups. I think that the quote can be found in the Psychological Bulletin by Kenneth Bowers and someone else around 1995.

25 See Psychodiagnostics, Table VIII, pages 50-51.

26 Insert reference for genetic studies in Denmakr (Gottesman?) that demonstrated the genetic patterns underlying the occurrence of schizophrenia.

27 See the mean and median of M in a sample of 315 inpatient depressives reported by Exner (1993, p. 309).

28 Regarding Color responses and affect, see reviews by Frank (1977, 1993).

29 Regarding Space responses, negativity, and oppositionality, see Frank (1977), Tegtmeyer and Gordon (1983), and Zubin, Eron, and Schumer (1965, p. 233).

30 Regarding Color Shock, see Zubin, Eron, and Schumer, 1965, pages 229-233

31 Psychodiagnostics does not state how many of the manic-depressive patients were depressed and how many were manic.

32 A fifty-year-old textbook by psychologist Florence Goodenough (1948?) discusses the problems of informal methods for estimating intelligence. Interestingly, her insightful remarks were based largely on work by Alfred Binet that had been done 30 years previously.

33 The tendency to find what one is expecting is commonly called “confirmation bias” (give citation).

34 Give citations of social psychology and cognitive studies that show effects of unconscious bias: Nisbett & ????; what else? Ask Howard. Also, give citation to Gould’s Mismeasure of Man.

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