May 7, 2001
Lilienfeld spots big problems in Rorschach tests
By Rachel Robertson
Imagine losing custody of a child based largely on the results of the Rorschach inkblot test, a projective measure whose validity has been questioned by researchers since the 1950s. Imagine also that other diagnostic measures disputed the Rorschach results, but they were ignored by the clinician in favor of the inkblots.
Scott Lilienfeld, associate professor of psychology, is not at all surprised
to get a phone call from someone describing such a case. Although he cannot
vouch for the accuracy of the details of this particular phone call, he
said, That kind of story is not all that atypical, so I wouldnt
find it terribly implausible.
Stories like this illustrate the importance of examining the validity
of such diagnostic instruments. Lilienfeld did just that, along with two
other collaborators, James Wood of the University of Texas at El Paso
and Howard Garb of the Pittsburgh Veterans Administration Health Care
System and University of Pittsburgh. Their recent article published by
the American Psychological Society reviewed three projective instruments
commonly used by clinicians: the Rorschach inkblot test, the Thematic
Apperception Test (TAT), and the Draw-a-Person Test. A shortened version
of their article appeared in the May issue of Scientific American.
Many people are familiar with the Rorschach, in which subjects are asked
to describe what they see in 10 different inkblots. This kind of test
is referred to as a projective technique, the idea being that
the subject is projecting personality traits and life experiences onto
something ambiguous, thereby giving the clinician a window into the workings
of his or her mind.
The TAT presents ambiguous scenessuch as a distraught woman holding
an open doorand asks people to generate a story for each scene.
The Draw-a-Person Test is fairly self-explanatory; the examinee draws
a picture of a person.
Clinicians use responses to these tests to detect mental disturbance,
and they often look for specific indicators. Focusing on random details
of a Rorschach inkblot may indicate obsessiveness, for example. In the
TAT, a clinician might look for recurring themes. Also, drawing large
eyes in the Draw-a-Person test could be construed as expressing paranoia.
Lilienfeld and his colleagues have concerns about the accuracy of these
measures to make mental diagnoses. There are generally two problems with
these tests: scoring reliability and validity. A measure is reliable when
different people who tabulate the responses arrive at similar conclusions;
all three psychological measures showed problematic or even poor reliability,
according to the researchers.
In order for a measure to be considered valid, it must either correspond
well with other measures or predict future behavior. None of the three
measures showed consistent validity, Lilien-feld found. However, a few
of the Rorschach variables appeared to be more valid, for example, in
Some proponents of the Rorschach claim they do not use it in isolation,
but Lilienfeld is of the opinion that including it rarely adds much of
value to a diagnosis.
In fact, Lilienfeld said, there are some data to suggest
that when you give clinicians the Rorschach when they have other information
available, it may actually decrease the validity of their prediction;
it may make it worse rather than better. So, more is not always better
in the area of psychological assessment. Its a common misconception.
As in the reported custody case, it also happens that clinicians commonly
ignore other test information in favor of the Rorschach. In fact, some
psychological literature recommends accepting Rorschach interpretations
over other methods. Lilienfeld said some clinicians believe that
the Rorschach is plumbing some deep depths of personality that the other
measures cant access.
Despite his findings, Lilienfeld is not totally opposed to using projective
techniques, but he feels more research is necessary.
These kinds of projective techniques can work in principle, he said. There is nothing wrong with the idea of having a projective technique; the rationale behind them is not an implausible one, and it may be a very meaningful one. So we really want to encourage people to build and construct better projective techniques.