How does the Rorschach inkblot test work? TED ed
How does the Rorschach inkblot test work? by Damion Searls (TED ed). Take a look at this image below. What might this be? A frightening monster? Two friendly bears? Or something else entirely?
For nearly a century, ten inkblots like these have been used as what seems like an almost mystical personality test. Long kept confidential for psychologists and their patients, the mysterious images were said to draw out the workings of a person’s mind.
But what can inkblots really tell us, and how does this test work? Invented in the early 20th century by Swiss psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach, the Rorschach Test is actually less about the specific things we see, and more about our general approach to perception.
As an amateur artist Hermann was fascinated by how visual perception varies from person to person. He carried this interest to medical school, where he learned all our senses are deeply connected. He studied how our process of perception doesn’t just register sensory inputs, but transforms them.
And when he started working at a mental hospital in eastern Switzerland, he began designing a series of puzzling images to gain new insight into this enigmatic process. Using his inkblot paintings, Rorschach began quizzing hundreds of healthy subjects and psychiatric patients with the same question: what might this be?
However, it wasn’t what the test subjects saw that was most important to Rorschach, but rather, how they approached the task. Which parts of the image did they focus on or ignore? Did they see the image moving? Did the color on some inkblots help them give better answers, or distract and overwhelm them?
He developed a system to code people’s responses, reducing the wide range of interpretations to a few manageable numbers. Now he had empirical measures to quantify all kinds of test takers: the creative and imaginative, the detail-oriented, the big-picture perceivers, and flexible participants able to adapt their approach.
Some people would get stuck, offering the same answer for multiple blots. Others gave unusual and delightful descriptions. Responses were as varied as the inkblots, which offered different kinds of perceptual problems– some easier to interpret than others.
But analyzing the test-taker’s overall approach yielded real insights into their psychology. And as Rorschach tested more and more people, patterns began to pile up. Healthy subjects with the same personalities often took remarkably similar approaches.
Patients suffering from the same mental illnesses also performed similarly, making the test a reliable diagnostic tool. It could even diagnose some conditions difficult to pinpoint with other available methods. In 1921, Rorschach published his coding system alongside the ten blots he felt gave the most nuanced picture of people’s perceptual approach.
Over the next several decades, the test became wildly popular in countries around the world. By the 1960s, it had been officially administered millions of times in the U.S. alone.
Unfortunately, less than a year after publishing the test, Hermann Rorschach had died suddenly. Without its inventor to keep it on track, the test he had methodically gathered so much data to support began to be used in all sorts of speculative ways.
Researchers gave the test to Nazi war criminals, hoping to unlock the psychological roots of mass murder. Anthropologists showed the images to remote communities as a sort of universal personality test. Employers made prejudiced hiring decisions based on reductive decoding charts.
As the test left clinics and entered popular culture its reputation among medical professionals plummeted, and the blots began to fall out of clinical use. Today, the test is still controversial, and many people assume it has been disproven.
But a massive 2013 review of all the existing Rorschach research showed that when administered properly the test yields valid results, which can help diagnose mental illness or round out a patient’s psychological profile. It’s hardly a stand-alone key to the human mind– no test is.
But its visual approach and lack of any single right answer continue to help psychologists paint a more nuanced picture of how people see the world. Bringing us one step closer to understanding the patterns behind our perceptions.
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Credit: Damion Searls – TED ed