“Image subconscious” (Rorschach test)


Dracula is such an iconic character that even people who have never read Bram Stoker’s book or seen the 1931 Bela Lugosi classic or ever had any interest in vampires knows exactly who he is and could likely rattle off half a dozen characteristics he possesses.

I see the Rorschach Inkblot Test as the Dracula of psychology. Persons who have never taken the test or been in a psychology class or read a psychology textbook know what it is and how it’s used. Also, it endures long after it should have been buried with a stake in its heart.

The ink blots are said to have the abilities to provide a psychological diagnosis, uncover deep personality traits, and predict a patient’s future behavior. But a more measured analysis shows it to be little more than a form of cold reading and no empirical data suggests it works as advertised.

Swiss doctor Hermann Rorschach devised the test, taking the idea from his childhood hobby of klecksography. This consists of dropping wet ink onto a paper then folding it in half to form two mirror images. Players then grab a pen and  complete whatever the image suggests to them.

In the 1960s, Dr. John Exner consolidated various forms of the test and standardized the scoring method. He produced 10 cards, which are still uniformly used by all psychologists who employ the Rorschach.

Those who use the test consider it a projective technique. This refers to when subjects are given an ambiguous stimulus and asked to interpret it. After the patient’s initial description, the psychologist probes for more detail to determine why the patient saw the images that they did. This is actually considered the key part of the assessment. It is not the initial epiphany of a splattered image resembling a flying insect that test proponents consider revealing. Rather, it is the more involved explanation of those object’s qualities and how they relate to the patient’s psyche that is most relevant. The distinctions of a flying insect are assumed to be the patient’s self-projection.

But open-ended queries about ambiguous stimuli mean that an accurate self-assessment is not a terribly likely result. As Brian Dunning at Skeptoid noted, “An artistic serial killer may speak at length about the beauty of the butterfly he sees, while a dull but harmless accountant may say it looks like a knife.”

Proponents consider the Rorschach test to be capable of unlocking a person’s deepest secrets, of providing a window to their soul, and of being able to capture the subconscious springing forth. But the techniques used and results claimed are similar to what we see with fortune tellers and mediums, though a psychologist has more admirable intent than does a ghoul cashing in on grieving relatives.

Still, a seemingly effective Rorschach analysis can be made using cold reading techniques employed by the likes of Tarot card readers and astrologers. This is even easier since a patient is in a therapist’s office precisely to open up. From this patient input, the listener gets a good idea about the client’s education level, background, interests, family members, fears, and dreams. All this information can eventually be woven by the therapist into what seems like an accurate analysis.

The examiner may also assign to the patient general attributes and circumstances that would apply to many persons and situations. The analysis may even be contradictory, further increasing the chance that at least part of it applies to any given person. In the end, the clinician ends up with an analysis that can be interpreted to exactly match the client’s case.

So while something accurate about the patient may be revealed in the sessions, attributing it Rorschach inkblots is a correlation/causation error. Anytime a subject answers complex questions and offers observations and reasoning at length, ample insight into that person will be revealed. So the test “works” because the psychologist has learned the patient’s history and personality. It’s not because an idiosyncratic pondering of ink blots provided a deep dive into the psyche or the  ability to scour hidden recesses of the mind.

So when I examine the blots, they look like a misinterpreted phenomenon whose value as a psychological tool has been greatly overblown.  

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