How Rorschach's 10 inkblots turned psychiatry upside down

The creator of the Rorschach test argued he could see beyond a person's deliberate defences by grading their interpretation of inkblots. Today, the images are referenced in everything from fashion to politics but does it contribute to psychiatry?

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It was one century ago that Swiss psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach designed 10 inkblots that he used to help analyze patients.

The personality test has gone from the confines of psychiatry to popular culture — and those 10 inkblots have both enthusiastic supporters and virulent critics.

Damion Searls, author, The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, His Iconic Test and the Power of Seeing, tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti while the 10 inkblot images have stood the test of time, the use of the test has changed.

"[Rorschach] initially used it to sort of diagnose the different patients in his asylum, and also started to use it more as a personality test for things like if you are introverted or extroverted, how you approach the world, were you pedantic or rigid," Searls explains
Hermann Rorschach published his work in June of 1921. He died in 1922 at the age of 38. (Wikimedia)

"And then over the years, especially after it really became central to the budding field of clinical psychology, it started to be used for everything."

Rorschach was a very visual person — he took photographs of all his patients and organized them as a way to understand them, says Searls. 

His approach was different than Freud, Searls explains, because Rorschach didn't just want to listen to patients talk.

"He thought that how you see goes deeper in a way than than what you decide to say, how you decide to present yourself."

Searls says in mid-century, the Rorschach test went "crazy the same way Freud did." He points to examples of how this played out.

"If you are a man and you saw a muscular male torso where a lot of other people saw a fleshy female torso, you were probably homosexual. If you saw a pall of black smoke, you were probably suicidal and time for electroshock," Searls says.

"It was really used in this very ham-fisted way and now it's used in a much more sort of sober, scientific way."

Searls writes in the book that when someone is intentionally or unintentionally suppressing other sides of their personality, the Rorschach test might be the only assessment to raise a red flag.

"That's partly because it's visual," Searls tells Tremonti.

Nobody knows exactly how Hermann Rorschach came up with the test, but there are notes and drafts of the inkblots. (Three Lions/Getty Images)

On most psychological tests that use questionnaires, Searls says it's easy sometimes to know what to say such as if you're asked if you hear voices other people don't — true or false.

"But should it look like a bat or not look like a bat? And it does look like something. I mean that's the thing about these 10 inkblots. They really aren't random, you're not sort of forcing an interpretation onto the cards. The cards really do feel like they're forcing an interpretation onto you."

If Rorschach lived and his career would have continued, Searls believes the test might have evolved to go deeper. 

"I mean he had come up with this sort of by trial and error, or by artistic instinct if you want to call it that, and he always knew that he didn't have a theory behind it," Searls says.

"He was already trying to sort of dig deeper behind what made the whole test possible and didn't have a chance to do that."

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Howard Goldenthal.