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Who's Afraid of the Rorschach Inkblot Test?

The test is reliable and valid, so what's the problem?

Key points

  • After criticism in 2003, many stopped teaching the Rorschach to graduate students in clinical psychology.
  • The Rorschach test takes a long time to learn, but that's probably not the real reason it has been dropped by many.
  • The Rorschach is associated in people's minds with the "unscientific" psychology of Freud and others.

In 2003, a handful of American clinical psychologists launched a frontal assault on the Rorschach inkblot test, saying that there should a "moratorium" on the use of the test, especially with regard to the use of the test in high-stakes forensics proceedings.

There have been two major consequences to the principled objections raised by these critics, one good and the other bad.

Scoring system for the Rorschach

On the one hand, the clinicians and researchers most committed to the use of the Rorschach responded in the best possible way, with ruthless self-examination and by dedicating themselves to the hard work necessary to ensure that the venerable inkblot test stood on solid scientific foundations. The most obvious result of their efforts has been the R-PAS scoring system for the Rorschach, which makes the test as reliable and valid an instrument as any other psychological test, or indeed, any other medical test.

Elimination of the Rorschach from graduate programs

The negative result of the 2003 criticisms is that many clinical psychologists took them as a cue to do what many had wanted to do for a long time—to simply drop the teaching of the Rorschach in clinical psychology graduate programs.

To call something "unscientific" in this day and age is to sound a death knell. If critics were saying that the Rorschach was "unscientific" or "psychometrically dubious," then that was a great excuse to jettison the test altogether. But why had they wanted to stop teaching the Rorschach to aspiring clinical psychologists?

For some, it just took too much time. Learning the Rorschach is a long and arduous undertaking. I recall struggling with plenty of issues around administration, scoring, and interpretation when I was in grad school; my clinical supervisor told me, "Don't worry, it gets a lot easier after you've done a hundred or so of them." Given that each Rorschach takes about three hours to administer, score, and interpret, that's a lot of time invested!

But I think another reason that some wanted to drop the Rorschach is that it stinks. That is, the Rorschach smells faintly of what many contemporary psychologists regard as "the bad old days," the days when psychodynamic theory roamed the Earth, trampling everything in its path. There are many psychologists these days who don't even feel comfortable calling themselves psychologists, preferring the term "cognitive scientist" instead. They look at the inkblots and they see Sigmund Freud's swirling cigar smoke and Carl Jung's mystical towers. They hate when fellow airline passengers ask, "Are you analyzing me?" after they find out what they do for a living. They want the public to think of psychology the same way they think about the wizards of Silicon Valley. It's not an accident that many psychologists studying psychotherapy these days are focusing not on psychotherapy as it has been known for over a century, but on Artificial Intelligence, "scalability," and "gamification." In other words, something very modern and very technological but not anything remotely resembling the traditional way of doing things.

If we keep probing, we might find yet another reason for the attempted abandonment of the Rorschach. I suspect that many psychologists are quite simply afraid of the test and what it has the potential to reveal. First, it is a misconception that the Rorschach is a test in which "anyone can see anything." There are normative responses to the Rorschach and there are idiosyncratic responses. There is something about the test itself, its ambiguity, the sometimes shocking black and red images, the detached and remote nature of the test-giver, that unsettles people. Taking the Rorschach often leads people down psychic avenues they prefer to avoid or disavow. Experienced administrators of the Rorschach learn that there is far more to people than the surface appearances. Some psychologists who are dismissive of the Rorschach remind me of people stamping on the ground and shouting, "I'm normal! I'm normal! I'm normal!" I suspect that the most threatening thing about the Rorschach for many is that it threatens to expose the fact that "we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending."

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