Q: I’m guessing that the psychology industry probably doesn’t even use inkblot tests anymore… but I’ve always wondered how they work. How does seeing a butterfly in a spot of ink give insight into one’s psyche? – Inkblotanonymous
A: Dear Inkblotanonymous,
You might guess that ink blots aren’t used any more, but you’d be wrong. Don’t worry, I’m here to help you sort it all out.
For the unfamiliar, the ink blots in question are abstract symmetrical designs created by smearing ink on paper, then folding the paper in half. In a demonstration of just how far I am willing to go for you, I’ve created an inkblot of my own using chocolate syrup and mustard on a sheet of typing paper.
To my own surprise, it looks somewhat similar to the standard ink blots used by psychologists, but with more calories. I’d show you one of the ink blots that shrinks use, but the psychologist’s ethics code, to which I am honor-bound, prohibits me from doing so. That, and they’d sue the pants off me.
Projection Is the Name of the Game
Here’s how the ink blot test is supposed to work. Ink blots provide ambiguous stimuli – much like life. During an ink blot test, usually called a Rorschach test, you are asked to make sense out of nonsense by explaining what forms and figures you see in the designs. In my inkblot, you might see a butterfly at first. If you look more closely you will undoubtedly see other forms too.
The Rorschach is considered a “projective” test because by identifying forms in an abstract image you are thought to be projecting your manner of viewing the world. Your responses are then compared to other people’s responses, and this supposedly offers a peek at your inner workings. Let’s say you see (or project) little green men in the inkblots. If other people who have identified little green men tended to be schizophrenic, then you might be schizophrenic too. That’s a bit simplified, but you get the general idea.
If that sounds like a stretch to you, you’re in agreement with many psychologists.
The Pros and Cons
Those who argue against the use of the Rorschach, including yours truly, worry that doctors who score the test are making arbitrary interpretations that cannot be tested and can easily be wrong. In our little green men example, any psychologist who labels you as schizophrenic won’t know whether she is right until she talks to you. So why not simply start by talking to you?
The anti-blot lobby also argues that the Rorschach doesn’t offer any information that can’t be gathered by using more direct and reliable methods – like, oh, I don’t know… client involvement and a trusting therapeutic relationship. To some of us, the Rorschach amounts to questionable methodology. Clinicians like the Iron Shrink can get plenty fired-up about methodology where important decisions are concerned, such as in custody or competency hearings (Dawes, 1994). Believe it or not, the Rorschach finds its way into lots of American courtrooms.
Of course, there are two sides to every story. Those who support the use of the Rorschach argue that there has been more than enough research and refinement to make it a valid tool, assuming that it is used within strict protocols. They also claim that the Rorschach can identify dynamics that are otherwise difficult to see, such as the way a person views herself in relation to others, or changes in psychotic symptoms over time (Weiner, 1996).
The Iron Shrink will grudgingly admit that the Rorschach has come a long way in recent decades, and it might even conjure interesting suppositions about a person. Then again, so might palm-reading. Even though I am trained and qualified to use the Rorschach you won’t find me whipping out my blots any time soon. And I certainly wouldn’t submit to this test if my future was at stake. What do I prefer? Ask me about functional behavior analysis someday, kids.
A Parting Gift
Now, Inkblotanonymous, I don’t want you walking away from this discussion empty-handed, so I leave you with the parting gift of blotto. No, not the alcohol-induced kind of blotto. The Rorschach has its roots in this old parlor game of creating and interpreting ink blots like the one I so painstakingly created just for you. (Hey, times were tough before TV.) So round up the kinfolk, break out the chocolate syrup, and go nuts. So to speak.
Dawes, R. M. (1994). House of Cards: Psychology and Psychotherapy Built on Myth. New York: Free Press.
Weiner, I. B. (1996). Some observations on the validity of the Rorschach Inkblot Method. Psychological Assessment, 8(2), 206-213.