The Rorschach Ink Blot Test

To many people outside of psychology, personality testing is synonymous with the use of the Rorschach Ink Blot Test.  Within scientific psychology — the status of the ink blot test is another matter.

The ink blots below are similar to the blots that are used on the Rorschach.  Take a look at each one and think about what you see in each of the patterns.


Did you see a creature — or creatures?  Were the elements of each blot motionless, or was some kind of activity going on?  Was there anything sexual in any of the ink blots?  How did each blot make you feel emotionally — happy, anxious, afraid, excited?  According to those who originally developed the test and those who still use the test today, what we see in the ink blots is an indication of important features of our personality.  These psychologists argue that we "project" our feelings and concerns (including feelings and concerns that are unconscious) onto the random elements of the blots, thereby affecting what we see.

But does the test really work?  As Dr. Scott Lilienfeld noted in a recent article in Scientific American (“What’s in a Picture?”, Scientific American, May, 2001), the test was first introduced in the 1920s by Swiss psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach, and for the next 50 years it was widely used despite the lack of any standardized procedures for administering the test or interpreting it.   More recently, a standardized set of procedures has been developed and proponents claim that the test now qualifies as scientifically useful. 

However, in spite of the Comprehensive System's current popularity, it generally falls short on the two crucial criteria that were also problematic for the original Rorschach: scoring reliability and validity. A tool possessing scoring reliability yields similar results regardless of who grades and tabulates the responses. A valid technique measures what it aims to measure: its results are consistent with those produced by other trustworthy instruments or are able to predict behavior, or both.

To understand the Rorschach's scoring reliability defects, it helps to know something about how reactions to the inkblots are interpreted. First, a psychologist rates the collected reactions on more than 100 characteristics, or variables. The evaluator, for instance, records whether the person looked at whole blots or just parts, notes whether the detected images were unusual or typical of most test takers, and indicates which aspects of the inky swirls (such as form or color) most determined what the respondent reported seeing.

Then he or she compiles the findings into a psychological profile of the individual. As part of that interpretive process, psychologists might conclude that focusing on minor details (such as stray splotches) in the blots, instead of on whole images, signals obsessiveness in a patient and that seeing things in the white spaces within the larger blots, instead of in the inked areas, reveals a negative, contrary streak.

For the scoring of any variable to be considered highly reliable, two different assessors should be very likely to produce similar ratings when examining any given person's responses. Recent investigations demonstrate, however, that strong agreement is achieved for only about half the characteristics examined by those who score Rorschach responses; evaluators might well come up with quite different ratings for the remaining variables.

Equally troubling, analyses of the Rorschach's validity indicate that it is poorly equipped to identify most psychiatric conditions--with the notable exceptions of schizophrenia and other disturbances marked by disordered thoughts, such as bipolar disorder (manic-depression). Despite claims by some Rorschach proponents, the method does not consistently detect depression, anxiety disorders or psychopathic personality (a condition characterized by dishonesty, callousness and lack of guilt).

Moreover, although psychologists frequently administer the Rorschach to assess propensities toward violence, impulsiveness and criminal behavior, most research suggests it is not valid for these purposes either. Similarly, no compelling evidence supports its use for detecting sexual abuse in children.

Other problems have surfaced as well. Some evidence suggests that the Rorschach norms meant to distinguish mental health from mental illness are unrepresentative of the U.S. population and mistakenly make many adults and children seem maladjusted. For instance, in a 1999 study of 123 adult volunteers at a California blood bank, one in six had scores supposedly indicative of schizophrenia.

The inkblot results may be even more misleading for minorities. Several investigations have shown that scores for African-Americans, Native Americans, Native Alaskans, Hispanics, and Central and South Americans differ markedly from the norms, and significantly over-diagnose mental disorders in these populations. Together the collected research raises serious doubts about the use of the Rorschach inkblots in the psychotherapy office and in the courtroom.

Lilienfeld further notes that the problems with other projective tests are at least as significant as those that occur with the use of the Rorschach.  For example, another widely used test involves asking individuals to draw a person (hence its name, the “Draw-a-Person Test”). Clinicians commonly interpret the sketches by relating specific "signs"--such as features of the body or clothing--to facets of personality or to particular psychological disorders. They might, for example, associate large eyes with paranoia, long ties with sexual aggression, missing facial features with depression, and so on.

As is true of the other methods, the research on drawing instruments gives reason for serious concern. In some studies, raters agree well on scoring, yet in others the agreement is poor. What is worse, no strong evidence supports the validity of the sign approach to interpretation; in other words, clinicians apparently have no grounds for linking specific signs to particular personality traits or psychiatric diagnoses. Nor is there consistent evidence that signs purportedly linked to child sexual abuse (such as tongues or genitalia) actually reveal a history of molestation. The only positive result found repeatedly is that, as a group, people who draw human figures poorly have somewhat elevated rates of psychological disorders. On the other hand, studies show that clinicians are likely to attribute mental illness to many normal individuals who lack artistic ability.

Certain proponents argue that sign approaches can be valid in the hands of seasoned experts. Yet one group of researchers reported that experts who administered the Draw-a-Person Test were less accurate than graduate students at distinguishing psychological normality from abnormality.

Despite these problems, the Rorschach Test, the Draw-a-Person Test, and other projective tests, continue to be widely used by clinical psychologists.   One large survey, for example found that over 40% of surveyed clinical psychologists reported using the Rorschach frequently and over 80% reported using it occasionally.   Similar results were found for the use of the Draw-a-Person Test.