A New Book Tells the Story of the Iconic Inkblot Test

A bird. A bat. A cervix. A rib cage. These are among the many, many answers that have been offered up in the century since Hermann Rorschach, a dashing young Swiss psychiatrist, first invented his inkblot test, and psychologists the world over began asking their patients: What might this be? The ten images Rorschach designed in a feverish period from 1917 to 1918 are the same images that psychologists still use to try and assess those aspects of human psychology that other, more straightforward exams might miss. A century later, these iconic blots remain one of the most studied and popular personality tests in the United States. They are admissible in court, used as evidence in custody battles; they are considered scientific enough to be reimbursed by insurance companies. And even as research on human psychology has raced ahead, as high-tech machines have arrived to examine the human brain in ways never before possible, there is something about these Rorschach images that keeps them in psychology’s armament still. “I often find myself asking why everyone is so skeptical of the Rorschach test,” says Damion Searls, the author of a new book on the subject, The Inkblots. “Because according to the peer-reviewed science, it’s at least as well-supported as any other personality test, and that’s after being subjected to more scrutiny than most.” Searls, a writer and translator, provides a rich cultural history of the Rorschach test, along with the first proper biography of Hermann Rorschach himself.

By now, the Rorschach images have been looked at and puzzled over by millions of people; they’ve transcended their status as psychological test and become cultural metaphor, endlessly accommodating in their stretch. “I’m a Rorschach test,” Hillary Clinton first said in 1993, by which she meant: You can tell a lot about a person by how he reacts to me. She continued to use the line for the next two and a half decades. “They’re the ten most-looked-at images of the 20th century, probably,” Searls told me last week.

Searls has been on the Rorschach trail awhile, becoming intrigued with the subject around 2010, and visiting Bern, Switzerland, to see for himself what might be available in the archives for a would-be biographer. In his letters, Rorschach is utterly charming: witty, irreverent, compassionate, and feminist. Attracted to all things Russian, he married a Russian woman — a fellow psychiatrist — and the two settled in the Swiss town of Herisau, where they worked at the local mental asylum. There, Rorschach puzzled over how to help his patients.

It was the first decades of the 20th century, and psychiatry was undergoing a significant upheaval. By the time Rorschach was a qualified doctor, psychoanalysis, with its emphasis on the unseen, on buried urges and repressed desires, was captivating thinkers well outside of Freud’s Vienna. In fact, as a student in Zurich, Rorschach had directly encountered one of psychoanalysis’s great stars and proponents, Carl Jung, whose university lectures he attended. Jung was spreading the revolutionary idea of the unconscious mind: that truth roils below the surface of what we can see. Jung told his audiences of students and followers that their “secret stories” were more integral to the field of psychology than any dry scientific or statistical method could ever hope to be. Searls cannot pinpoint the exact moment when Rorschach first had the idea to use inkblots to access those “secret stories,” to try and get a read on the inner core of a person’s psychology, but he points out an interesting detail: Rorschach — whose father had been a painter, and who himself was deeply visual — was nicknamed “Klex” as a university student, the German word for inkblot. In fact, “klexogaphy”— trying to pull meaning from accidental blots of ink — was a fairly common childhood game. And by the time Rorschach was working as a doctor, there were even a few others who were using inkblots to test human subjects on how “imaginative” they were, by counting up the number of answers a person could come up with when looking at an inkblot, no matter how bizarre or nonsensical they might be.

But Rorschach’s interest was not in questions of “imagination,” but rather in perception. He wanted to design a test to explore how people saw the world around them, with all the psychological depth that implies. “The Rorschach test rests on one basic premise: seeing is an act not just of the eye, but of the mind; and not just of the visual cortex or some other isolated part of the brain, but of the whole person,” Searls writes. “If that is true, a visual task that calls upon enough of our perceptual powers will reveal the mind at work.”

In 1917, now in his early 30s, Rorschach, fascinated by visual culture, the son of a painter and a painter himself, sat down to fuse the two different sides of his brain together: art and science. “In his biography, he’s such this artist type, who then has this sort of intuitive flash — and then turns into this scrupulous, responsible scientist type, who wants to do statistics and get sample sizes that are big enough and doesn’t want to overstep and is really concerned that it not be misused,” Searls told me.

Photo: Spencer Grant/Getty Images/Science Source

So why those ten images? Searls doesn’t know exactly. Nobody does. Very little survives about Rorschach’s aesthetic reasoning as he designed the cards that would constitute the test. But the ten images that Rorschach ultimately emerged with, in 1918, are the exact same ten images we still know today as the Rorschach test. No one has ever been able to come up with a better version. “They’re not trying to be art, but they’re not not art either,” Searls says. “There have been attempts over the decades to try and come up with new inkblots, but they never work. They’re just not as good, they’re not as interesting. The blots really have to look like something, but just not too much like something.” Or, as Searls writes, the genius of the Rorschach images lies in just how “they strain at the edge of the intelligible.”

That the Rorschach uses images, not words, as prompts is what gives it its unique power. “It’s a visual test, so it gets around your defenses and conscious strategies of self-presentation,” Searls tells us. “You can manage what you want to say but you can’t manage what you want to see.” The set-up is simple. Test takers are presented with ten different cards, each stamped with its own ambiguous but symmetrical blob, some black and white, some using color, and prompted by the examiner with the open-ended question: What might be this be? There are no rules, no guidelines, no structure for how to answer. In fact, the subject is encouraged to feel that all answers are good answers. And as the subject proceeds to describe what he or she sees on the cards, the examiner carefully records their remarks.

Rorschach, who showed his images to hundreds of patients at the Krombach psychiatric hospital, sorted their answers into three basic categories: Form, Movement, and Color. The extent to which a subject favored one kind of answer more than another went into Rorschach’s careful scoring system, from which he could create a psychological profile. Form answers — in which subjects described what the different shapes looked like — were the most common, and Rorschach believed they displayed conscious reasoning powers, like attention and accuracy. But Rorschach believed that it was the Movement and Color responses that were “the keys to the personality,” the clues to a person’s unconscious mind. The more “M” responses, the “greater a person’s ‘psychic inner life.’” People who got waylaid by the color used in some of the cards, like the bright red in card 2, tended to get carried away with their emotions, become less able to rationally perceive the forms on the cards, “less able to see what was really there.” As he administered the test to more and more patients, Rorschach discovered concrete patterns. He noticed, for instance, that if he tested a manic-depressive patient in a depressive phase, they would tend to give no movement or color responses; they would start small, looking at details, before transferring their attention to the whole image (the opposite pattern was more common); and would also give fewer responses on the whole. A schizophrenic patient would be more likely to get swept up in Color answers — or refuse to answer at all, rejecting whole cards.

Quickly, Rorschach’s test began getting attention in Europe, especially when it became clear that a trained examiner could read a test result blind and understand quite a bit about the patient who had taken it, often describing a psychological profile in details that resonated for the those who actually knew the patient. But just as it was all beginning, Rorschach himself died, of appendicitis, at the age of 37. He didn’t live long enough to see that his test was about to rocket to icon status in America, of all places.

Photo: William Bon/Getty Images

Indeed, Searls argues that there was nothing accidental about the fact that the Rorschach soared straight into the heart of American culture. It is here, in America, that we have “this kind of fascination with the personality, your mysterious, unique style, as opposed to looking at: are you a good person? Do you provide for your family? It doesn’t matter if you’re good, it matters if you’re charismatic,” he said. “This idea that who you are isn’t about what you do, it’s about who you are in the inside — that actually isn’t a universal way of looking at the world, it’s a pretty American way.” The Rorschach test promised, like an x-ray, to read the internal core of our American specialness, to get to the very essence of our individuality. We can still see this desire to be understood at play when even the silliest personality test on BuzzFeed goes viral, millions eager to find the answer to, “Which Seinfeld character are you?”

By the 1940s, the test had thoroughly infiltrated American practices, both at home and abroad. American psychologists in Nuremberg administered it to Nazi war criminals, trying to find the key to the “Nazi mind.” (They couldn’t.) American anthropologists like Cora Du Bois visited remote villages in places like Bali, giving the natives there the Rorschach test and diligently recording their answers, searching for clarity on the question of how culture shapes personality. Back home, the American government adapted the test to screen millions of army recruits. The thing about it was this: The test worked. Scores were consistent across different examiners; a trained examiner could read results and give an uncannily accurate assessment — without having ever met the person in question.

Of course, the test doesn’t always work the way one might wish. Over the years, it has waxed and waned in use, been tweaked and adapted, the scoring system refined. Academic battles have raged over differing Rorschach philosophies. It has suffered massive blows to its credibility when testers missed, for example, the potential for child abuse by one parent in a bad divorce proceeding. But something has kept the Rorschach in circulation; there is an apparent force those ten images exert on those who look at them, both seductive and mysterious, perhaps even a little black magical. And with The Inkblots, the Rorschach, in all its ambiguity, finally has the richly complex life history it deserves.

A New Book Tells the Story of the Iconic Inkblot Test