What Is the Rorschach Inkblot Test?

Rorschach Test, black ink
William Andrew/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

Many people have heard of the famous Rorschach inkblot test in which respondents are asked to look at ambiguous inkblot images and then describe what they see. The test often appears in popular culture and is frequently portrayed as a way of revealing a person’s unconscious thoughts, motives or desires.

The Rorschach inkblot test is a type of projective psychological test created in 1921 by a Swiss psychologist named Hermann Rorschach. Often utilized to assess personality and emotional functioning, it is the second most commonly used forensic test after the MMPI-2. A 1995 survey 412 clinical psychologists in the American Psychological Association revealed that 82% used the Rorschach inkblot test at least occasionally.

The History of the Rorschach Test

Rorschach was certainly not the first to suggest that a person's interpretation of an ambiguous scene might reveal hidden aspects of that individual's personality. He may have been inspired to create his famous test by a variety of influences.

As a boy, Rorschach had a great appreciation for klecksography or the art of making images from inkblots. As he grew older, Rorschach developed a mutual interest in art and psychoanalysis. He even published papers analyzing the artwork of mental patients, suggesting that the art they produced could be used to learn more about their personalities.

One game created in 1896 even involved creating inkblot monsters to use then as prompts for stories or verse. Alfred Binet had also experimented with the idea of using inkblots as a way to test creativity and originally planned to include inkblots in his intelligence tests.

Inspired perhaps by both his childhood hobbies and his studies of Sigmund Freud's dream symbolism, Rorschach began to develop a systematic approach to using inkblots as an assessment tool.

Rorschach developed his approach after studying more than 400 subjects, including over 300 mental patients and 100 control subjects. His 1921 book Psychodiagnostik presented ten inkblots that he selected as having high diagnostic value. The book also detailed his approach to scoring responses to the test.

Rorschach's book found little success, and he died suddenly at age 38 just one year after the text's publication. Following the publication of the book, however, a wide variety of scoring systems emerged. The test has grown to be one of the most popularly used psychological tests.

How Does the Rorschach Test Work?

The Rorschach test consists of 10 inkblot images, some of which are black, white or gray and some of which are color. A psychologist who has been trained in the use, scoring and interpretation of the test shows each of the ten cards to the respondent. The subject is then asked to describe what he or she thinks the card looks like. The respondents are free to interpret the ambiguous image however they want. They can focus on the image as a whole, on certain aspects of the image or even on the white space that surrounds the image.

Once the subject has provided a response, the psychologist will then ask further questions to get the subject to further elaborate on his or her initial impressions.

The psychologist also rates the reactions on a large number of variables such as whether the subject looked at the whole image. These observations are then interpreted and compiled into a profile of the individual.

Criticisms of the Rorschach Test

Despite the popularity of the Rorschach test, it has remained the subject of considerable controversy. The test was criticized extensively during the 1950s and 1960s for its lack of standardized procedures, scoring methods and norms.

Before 1970, there were as many as five scoring systems that differed so dramatically that they essentially represented five different versions of the test. In 1973, John Exner published a comprehensive new scoring system that combined the strongest elements of the earlier systems. The Exner scoring system is now the standard approach used in the administration, scoring, and interpretation of the Rorschach test.

In addition to early criticism of the inconsistent scoring systems, detractors note that the test's poor validity means that it is unable to identify accurately most psychological disorders. As you can imagine, scoring the test can be a highly subjective process. One of the key criticisms with the Rorschach is that it lacks reliability. Two clinicians might arrive at very different conclusions even when looking at the same subject's responses.

The test is primarily used in psychotherapy and counseling, and those who use it regularly often do so as a way of obtaining a great deal of qualitative information about how a person is feeling and functioning. The therapist and client can then further explore some of these issues during therapy.

The test has shown some effectiveness in the diagnosis of illnesses characterized by distorted thinking such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Some experts caution that since the Exner scoring system contains errors, clinicians might be prone to over-diagnosing psychotic disorders if they rely heavily on Exner's system.

Despite the controversies and criticisms over its use, the Rorschach test remains widely used today in a variety of situations such as in schools, hospitals and courtrooms.

Today, some psychologists dismiss the Rorschach as merely a relic of psychology's past, a pseudoscience on par with phrenology and parapsychology, the latter of which is not to be confused with transpersonal psychology.  Authors Wood, Nezworski, and Garb suggest that while the Rorschach is certainly worthy of criticism, it is not without merit. The test's use in the identification of thought disorders had been well established, and the available research does suggest that the test's validity is greater than that of chance.

More Psychology Definitions: The Psychology Dictionary

View Article Sources
  • Lee, L. (1999). The Name's Familiar: Mr. Leotard, Barbie, and Chef Boy-Ar-Dee. Pelican Publishing. ISBN 978-1-4556-0918-5.
  • Lilienfeld, S. O., Wood, J. M., & Garb, H. N. (2001, May). What's Wrong With This Picture? Scientific American, pp. 81-87.
  • McGraw-Hill Publishers. (2001). Hermann Rorschach, M.D. Test Developer Profiles.
  • O'Roark, A.M. (2013). History and Directory: Society for Personality Assessment Fiftieth Anniversary. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
  • Watkins, C.E., et al. (1995). Contemporary practice of psychological assessment by clinical psychologists. Professional Pscyhology: Research and Practice, 26(1), pages 54–60.
  • Wood, J. M., Nezworski, M.T., & Garb, H.N. (2003). "What's Right with the Rorschach?"The Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice, 2(2).