Volume 77
Number 2

Making a Splash

Invincible Ink

Where the Heart Is

Commencement 2001

Emory University

Association of Emory Alumni

Current News and Events

Emory Report



Sports Updates




















































LET’S SAY A PSYCHOLOGIST is showing you the first of ten cards in the Rorschach inkblot test. Perhaps you see a fox’s head, a bat, or a butterfly. That’s good. The more straightforward, the better. It’s okay to be creative if you can justify your response. But whatever you do, don’t groan, get emotional, or make irrelevant comments. Don’t put your hands on the cards to block out parts. And don’t say you see nothing but an inkblot.

This advice on how to achieve a normal score on a Rorschach test is given by the Fathers’ Rights To Custody (FRTC) organization, which assists fathers involved in court custody battles. “The FRTC’s position on the use of the Rorschach test is that it is an inappropriate and unreliable test for use in the context of a child custody evaluation,” the organization says on its Web site.

The value of the Rorschach inkblot test, a projective personality test that has been widely used for more than eight decades, is being questioned by more than just disenfranchised fathers. In recent years, academics also have attacked the Rorschach, saying that it lacks scientific validity.

Scott O. Lilienfeld, associate professor of psychology at Emory, recently co-authored articles in the American Psychological Society’s journal and in Scientific American questioning the use of the Rorschach test and other projective tools in clinical and legal settings.

“Someone could lose custody largely on the basis of their Rorschach responses,” Lilienfeld says. “Some clinicians use the Rorschach by itself to make diagnoses. The scientific evidence does not support this.”

The controversy made the front page of the New York Times science section, pitting critics against supporters of the Rorschach. “What’s in an Inkblot?” asked the headline. “Some Say, Not Much.”

These aren’t simply academic skirmishes over methods of interpretation: Lilienfeld and others are genuinely concerned about how these tests are applied–or misapplied, as the case may be. “The Rorschach tends to overpathologize,” he says, “meaning it is more typical for a normal person to score as pathological than vice versa.”

False diagnoses can have devastating consequences. As the most popular projective test, the Rorschach is administered to hundreds of thousands of people each year. In a survey of American Psychological Association members, 82 percent said they used the Rorschach “occasionally” and 43 percent “frequently.” Results are used as an aid in diagnosing mental illness, deciding child custody and criminal cases, and evaluating prisoners’ parole status.

Although he has never had a private practice, Lilienfeld administered the Rorschach numerous times while in graduate school at the University of Minnesota (“a fact about which I now have some guilt,” he says), and had a full course in its scoring and interpretation. “I can’t say I found it especially helpful,” he says. “Administering and scoring it probably heightened my skepticism.”

The Rorschach inkblot test was developed in the 1920s by Hermann Rorschach, a young Swiss psychologist who got the idea from a popular European parlor game that involved making inkblots and telling stories about them.

Like all projective tests, the Rorschach presents viewers with ambiguous images and asks them to interpret the images, thereby eliciting their thoughts, fears, motives, and fantasies. The ten symmetrical inkblots used in the test (five contain color, five are black and gray) are always the same, given in a specific order, and are supposed to be kept secret from the public to ensure “spontaneous” answers that give clues to people’s personalities–and personality disorders.

The Rorschach originally came under fire in the 1950s and ’60s because it lacked standardized procedures for its administration and scoring. In the 1970s, experts came up with the Comprehensive System, a detailed set of instructions for delivering the test and interpreting the responses.

But Lilienfeld and like-minded colleagues, including James M. Wood of the University of Texas at El Paso and Howard N. Garb of the University of Pittsburgh, say that even the revised version of the Rorschach still falls short on two important criteria: reliability and validity. Reliability is a measure of a test’s capacity to produce similar results no matter who interprets or “grades” the responses. Validity means the test’s results would be consistent with other tests that measure the same traits.

“When it comes to projective techniques, you often can’t make strong scientific or empirical claims,” Lilienfeld says. “And you should either be able to show that they work, or be open with clients that you’re not using scientific methods.”

Irving B. Weiner, a clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral medicine at the University of South Florida and president of the International Rorschach Society, says the Rorschach test is widely used around the world by competent professionals to detect disorders like schizophrenia and depression and there are abundant journal articles and research supporting it. “Three or four people are churning out all these articles saying they don’t think the Rorschach is any good,” he says, “but they aren’t giving an even-handed review of the literature.”

Weiner agrees the Rorschach test alone shouldn’t be used to make determinations of child custody or other legal matters. “Nor should any other single test. That’s not what it’s for,” he says. “It is intended to identify aspects of how people function. It’s helpful because it can identify things people don’t talk about.”

Evaluators of the Rorschach score responses on more than a hundred characteristics, including whether the viewer looked at the whole blot or just parts, whether the detected images were unusual, and whether images were seen in the blot itself or in the white background. Projective tests like the Rorschach, the Thematic Apperception Test (cards with drawings of ambiguous situations, mostly featuring people), and the Draw-A-Person (clients are asked to draw a person of the same sex and the opposite sex) can take hours to administer and score, and rely heavily on examiner interpretation and, in some part, intuition.

Lilienfeld and his colleagues say until better projective tests are constructed, clinicians would do well to stick to methods that have been proven both valid and reliable–such as self-report questionnaires like the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory-2 and structured psychiatric interviews.

Even if the Rorschach is used solely as a therapeutic tool, there is still potential for abuse, Lilienfeld cautions. “People coming in to psychotherapy are vulnerable,” he says. “They are looking for solutions, for answers to problems, and desire to believe that therapy will yield important truths.”

Perhaps the Rorschach test can, as claimed, provide an “X-ray of the mind.” But, asks Lilienfeld, whose mind: that of the client or the examiner?



© 2001 Emory University