The World in a Blot of Ink

What might this be? A moth, a bat, a winged musical conductor, a spaceship? Whatever you may see, you are also looking at Card I of the Rorschach test ...

What might this be? A moth, a bat, a winged musical conductor, a spaceship? Whatever you may see, you are also looking at Card I of the Rorschach test, the series of 10 ambiguous, symmetrical inkblots that have captivated popular psychology for almost a century. Though it has been largely superseded by quantitative methods such as the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), the Rorschach’s comparatively subjective, interpretive style reminds us of the power and efficacy of broadly humanist approaches. In The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, His Iconic Test, and the Power of Seeing, Damion Searls shows us the grand vision behind the small, seemingly random blots of color printed on cardboard, a vision of the dazzling plenitude of human ways of being in the world.

Today’s demand for fast, cheap, conclusive assessments has raised tests such as the MMPI to dominance. The MMPI asks testers to fill out over five hundred machine-scored yes/no and true/false questions, from the mundane (“At times I feel like swearing”) to the alarming (“Evil spirits possess me at times”). This stripped-down, efficient approach contrasts in almost every way with the Rorschach, which is open-ended, stimulating interpretation in both tester and scorer alike. The MMPI, sentence-completion tests, and drawing tests all assess a person’s conscious self-presentation: testers fill in answers that sound right and fashion pictures that look normal. The Rorschach, by pitching test takers headlong into perceptual and affective uncertainty, elicits deeper and more authentic psychic material. Accordingly, it takes more time and skill to interpret, and its conclusions can seem vague—conditions that have not gained it favor with busy clinical psychologists, especially those working with schools and courts. Today the Rorschach, with its leisurely contemplation and variable scoring, can seem like a relic of a slower-moving time; at midcentury, though, its pure humanism found tremendous popularity among clinical psychologists and their clients.

Indeed, the test’s fascinating history is the subject of The Inkblots, which is superbly researched, engagingly written, and brimming with insights about human perception and personality. The Inkblots offers not only the definitive word on the Swiss psychologist Hermann Rorschach (1884–1922), but a long look at the 20th- and 21st-century self as imagined by psychological testing. In a time of cost-cutting and deregulation, the book delivers a compelling argument for the continued value of the Rorschach test and the depths of human psychology that it plumbs. The test’s true genius, though, lay in its appeal to both quantitative and humanist camps.

How does the Rorschach test work? Contrary to widespread belief, the cards are not simplistically psychoanalyzed for content: seeing genitals or monsters is not the decisive data point. Rorschach was interested in the components of visual perception, so he counted the number of answers for each card; whether the answers were holistic or focused on a detail only; and whether the answers accounted for form, color, and movement. He found that the test could quickly reveal psychosis or schizophrenia in subjects who rejected cards, saw far fewer animals than ordinary people, and grasped form poorly. While a high number of unusual answers could indicate both creative intelligence and complete dysfunction, the test could differentiate between genius and delusion. Within the normal psychological range, the test’s elegance lay in its linkage of perceptual habits to affective experience: for example, people engaged by movement were empathetic, able to feel themselves into the blotted image. Those who responded to color were affectively volatile, even manic. Answers that balanced form and color combined intellectual and emotional reactions. The method melded a Romantic ethos that privileged microscopic unique individual perceptions with a modern scientific confidence that they could be rationally organized and studied.

The Rorschach test’s true genius lay in its appeal to both quantitative and humanist camps.

Can the Rorschach test accurately diagnose personality disorders? According to Searls’s even-handed account, yes—with caveats. In its midcentury heyday, the test’s proponents hyped it as “an X-ray of the soul,” able to reveal in a matter of hours deep insights that conventional conversation-based therapy took years to illuminate. Yet beginning in the 1950s, its detractors mounted devastating critiques, demonstrating that the test performed little better than chance at predicting future psychological problems. It was notably attacked again in a 2003 book, What’s Wrong with the Rorschach?, which vividly illustrated the high stakes of its inaccuracies.1 For instance, the Rorschach was—and remains—widely used by court-appointed psychologists to involuntarily commit the mentally ill and to award child custody. In one case, a sexually abusive stepfather who scored well on the Rorschach was awarded custody of a girl over the protestations of her mother, who had tested badly. Searls notes that these tests were incorrectly scored, and produces competing accounts of brilliantly accurate Rorschach readings. Yet, more compelling than the question of the test’s actual efficacy is the intellectual and cultural history Searls assembles to understand its waxing and waning popularity. His ultimate justification for the test’s efficacy reconciles the two sides of subjective interpretation and objective calculation, just as Rorschach did when he painstakingly devised the 10 original images.

Rorschach the man is as enigmatic and alluring as the ink images. He described himself as having “a talent for living,” which Searls ably evokes in his account of Rorschach’s vibrant marriage of work and play, art and life.

Hermann Rorschach ca. 1910

As a staff doctor at the Krombach psychiatric hospital in Herisau, Switzerland, Rorschach devised ingenious methods to understand his patients’ minds. He made dozens of puppets for a shadow play, to the delight of the inmates and staff; he also brought a monkey on his rounds, and its mischievousness drew characteristically nonresponsive patients out of their shells. He asked them to draw, and spent hours analyzing their efforts in his case notes. The idea of using inkblots in psychological testing was not unheard of: in 1895, the French psychologist Alfred Binet (of the Binet-Simon IQ test fame) had tested the imagination with them, as did a graduate student at the University Clinic in Zurich, Szymon Hens. Making random, symmetrical images by folding an ink-spattered page had been a popular children’s game since the 19th century, and Rorschach had enjoyed it so much that his classmates nicknamed him “Klex,” or “Inkblot.” Seeking a way to reach his patients that would improve upon Carl Jung’s word association test, Sigmund Freud’s free association, and hypnosis, Rorschach began to experiment with images. If he could precisely calibrate their ambiguity—neither too recognizable nor too formless—then he could study the delicate linkage between a person’s perception and their interpretation. How did visual information develop into feeling and thought, culminating in experience itself? The small, carefully arranged inkblots would answer such large questions.

Rorschach’s tragic early death orphaned his test, leaving its subsequent reception to chance. For a week in March 1922 he had suffered from stomach pains, walking down the corridors of Krombach doubled over. His wife, Olga, belatedly called a doctor, who immediately detected appendicitis and summoned a surgeon from Zurich. But late snows obscured the roads, and the surgeon drove to the wrong town, 15 miles away. The additional delay was decisive. Rorschach’s appendix ruptured and he died on the operating table, of peritonitis, at age 37. Olga later wrote that as they waited for the surgeon, he told her that he knew he was doomed. “In a way it is a beautiful thing, to leave in the middle of life, but it is bitter,” he said.


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He had published his theory of the inkblot test as a book, Psychodiagnostics, the previous year. Initially, the psychiatric world had not known what to make of it. Yet the test grew and prospered without his advocacy. Searls documents its migration to the US and its competing proponents: Samuel Beck, who represented the dominant, hard-science approach of the late 19th-century psychometric tradition, and accordingly focused on how to score the test; and Bruno Klopfer, who exemplified the more philosophical, holistic position, that the test revealed a person’s psychic “configuration.” The feud between the two rivals propelled the test’s popularity in the 1930s. Its appeal to both camps ensured its success: it could be used by the burgeoning Freudian movement, scored by budding behaviorists, and adapted by anthropologists to study the psychologies of non-Western cultures. Moreover, it was intuitive enough to be generally understood by a middlebrow reading public fascinated by the hot topic of personality. By the early 1940s, Sarah Lawrence College was testing its entire entering class, and the US Army had adapted a multiple-choice version to screen recruits. The Rorschach survived its inventor to capture the cultural imagination because it was accessible, beguiling, and efficacious.

It helped that the test beautifully suited two related ideologies: a midcentury preoccupation with deep subjectivity and US Cold War imperialism. The test relied on the concept of projection, which links these two formations. In taking the Rorschach test, modern, Western subjects revealed the depth of their distinct psyches. By contrast, the test’s anthropological use among non-Western and colonized people revealed their general cultural orientation more than their unique psychic depths.

In Searls’s cogent description, projection bridged the gap between Freudian psychology and the plethora of new diagnostic techniques designed to reveal the Western individual’s private world. As Searls voices the premise behind projection: “The world is a dark, chaotic place. It has only the meaning we give it. But do I perceive the shape of things or create that shape? Do I find a wolf in the inkblot or put one there?” By midcentury, projective tests flourished, and the Rorschach was joined by sentence-completion tasks, uncaptioned cartoons, the “House-Tree-Person” drawing test, and the Thematic Apperception Test, which presented subjects with ambiguous images of social relations, drawn from the pages of middlebrow magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post. In these years, the period of its greatest power, the Rorschach achieved its iconic status in popular culture, appearing in Hollywood films such as The Dark Mirror (1946) and in the pages of Life magazine, and was echoed in art such as Jackson Pollock’s abstract expressionist drip paintings.

Card 6GF of the TAT

Card 6GF of the Thematic Apperception Test

While the other popular projective tests delved down into an individual’s hidden psyche, only the Rorschach also spread across the globe in anthropological assessments of non-Western cultures. Because psychology was deemed relevant to national security, the US government funded Rorschach tests on people from Micronesia to Morocco to Vietnam. In 1952, Cornell University even leased a Peruvian village, studying its villagers and compiling data purporting to detail every vestige of their psychic lives. Similar anthropological research undertaken by Harvard psychologist Bert Kaplan intended to archive the psychic phenomena of “primitive” people in what Rebecca Lemov has called a “database of dreams.”2 Unlike in Western metropolitan psychoanalysis, these details were compiled not for individual therapy, but for imperial information-gathering and control.

The test’s fall from grace forms the subject of The Inkblots’ most trenchant chapter, on the Nazi Rorschach tests. Searls convincingly shows how the test itself failed the cultural expectation to confirm the Nuremberg defendants’ psychological abnormality, which would have explained their readiness to enact the atrocity of the Holocaust. Instead, experts interpreted the Rorschach tests of Herman Göring, Adolf Eichmann, and many of the others as more or less normal, a finding that lent credence to Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” thesis in Eichmann in Jersualem (1963). Although no psychological or sociological explanation could have satisfied the thirst for moral judgment in this case, the test’s inability to delineate a psychological profile of unprecedented evil dealt it a “devastating blow,” according to Searls. Moreover, the Nazi Rorschach tests, along with Stanley Milgram’s notorious electric-shock experiments, fueled the growing distrust of psychologists and psychiatrists as authoritarian figures.

The counterculture of the 1960s marked the test’s nadir: the period’s new emphasis on relativism remade everything into an endless Rorschach test that could never be rationally scored or evaluated. The ’60s famously reframed mental illness as personal truth. Conversely, the test itself fell into disrepute because scientists—especially government-funded ones—could never see truly into an individual’s unique essence. The paths to personal truth were increasingly sought not via analyses of inner motivation but via psychedelics, behavior-based theories, and community mental health projects grounded in socioeconomic critiques. Although the psychologist John Exner would revive the Rorschach with a new scoring system in the 1980s, the 1960s had killed the faith in its descriptive power and ended its original cultural authority.

These days the Rorschach has settled into a smaller niche than it once occupied: Searls estimates it is given between 50,000 to 100,000 times a year in the US, down from its 1960s peak of 1,000,000. It also appears poised for a comeback in therapeutic settings and in research on visual intelligence, mirror neurons, Alzheimer’s, attention, and, perhaps most importantly, empathy. It is on this last topic that Searls makes the book’s most profound claim, that the Rorschach test works because it reveals the universally visual component of empathy. As he puts it, “You don’t feel someone’s feelings without seeing that person as they really are, which means seeing the world through their eyes.” “The power of seeing” has earned a bad name in academic critiques of modern power, which is said to use vision to objectify and surveil its subjects. Searls’s humanist account, by contrast, recuperates vision for a universal, liberal mode of empathy. His broad but precise account of the Rorschach test brings home the enormous potential for social connection hidden in the simple question, “What might this be?”


The second blot of the Rorschach inkblot test. Wikimedia Commons

  1. James M. Wood et al., What’s Wrong with the Rorschach? Science Confronts the Controversial Inkblot Test (Jossey Bass, 2003).
  2. Rebecca Lemov, Database of Dreams: The Lost Quest to Catalog Humanity (Yale University Press, 2015).
Featured image: the first blot of the Rorschach inkblot test. Wikimedia Commons