Do psychologists still use Rorschach inkblot tests?

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March 5 2009 12:25 PM

Do Psychologists Still Use Rorschach Tests?

Plus: Are the inkblots on Rorschach's mask in Watchmen the real deal?

Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach in Watchmen.
Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach in Watchmen

Watchmen, the blockbuster film adaptation of a beloved graphic novel, opens Friday. The movie's vigilante hero, Rorschach, spends much of his screen time hidden behind an ink-splattered mask. We're all familiar with Rorschach inkblots, but do psychologists still use them?

Yes, though there is some debate over how useful the tests can be. Many psychologists use Rorschach inkblots to gauge personality and measure emotional stability. They're often used as character evidence in civil court proceedings and parole hearings and as a way of diagnosing mental illness in a clinical setting. According to the Society for Personality Assessment, the Rorschach inkblot test is second in popularity only to the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory among professionals in the field.

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The inkblot test was invented in 1921 by a Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst named Hermann Rorschach. He'd been a longtime fan of Klecksography, a Swiss parlor game based on the creation and interpretation of inkblots, and he noticed that his patients sometimes saw unusual meanings in the images. Soon he'd worked out a standard diagnostic procedure using 10 image-cards, by which he could interpret aspects of someone's personality. Plate V, for example, was almost always interpreted by healthy subjects as a bat or a moth; schizophrenics were either unable to answer or saw moving people in the shape. (The name of the test was misleading from the very start. The "inkblots" Rorschach used were actually his own drawings, not random images created by dropping ink on a piece of paper and folding it in half.)

Rorschach died from a burst appendix shortly after publishing his findings. In subsequent years, clinicians modified Rorschach's testing methods but continued to use his original set of cards. To ensure the images would be identical, the cards were all printed on the same press Rorschach first used in Switzerland, using a secret template. To this day, the American Psychological Association's standard of ethics discourages members from distributing the official inkblots, but the images are easy enough to find on the Internet.

The test is conducted in two parts. First, the psychologist asks the patient for a gut response to each card. Then the psychologist gives the cards to the patient and asks him to explain his initial interpretations. In its original version, the patient would then be given a somewhat freewheeling analysis on the basis of his responses. Later, psychologists worried that the test was too subjective, and during the 1960s an American psychologist named John E. Exner used extensive clinical testing to create what was thought to be a major improvement on Rorschach's scoring system.

There's been some controversy over the reliability of Exner's Comprehensive System. Some critics have argued that the results of his version of the Rorschach test don't match up well with other personality tests and that they may overestimate the prevalence of psychiatric disorders like schizophrenia and depression. The test has also been criticized because the images (and the responses you should give) are readily available on the Internet, and so many variables can affect its outcome.

Bonus Explainer: Are the inkblots on Rorschach's mask in the movie genuine Rorschach inkblots? No. Artists designed the cinematic mask on the basis of the one drawn in the original comic book. (The inkblots in Watchmen appear to be more ornate than Hermann Rorschach's originals. "In the first place, the forms must be relatively simple," the psychiatrist wrote many years ago. "Complicated pictures make the computations of the factors of the experiment too difficult.") There may also be a legal reason for the departure: The official Rorschach images are still under copyright in some countries.

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Explainer thanks Gregory T. Eells of Cornell University and Anthony Sciara of Rorschach Training Programs.

Caroline Berson is a Slate intern.