Hermann Rorschach and the Inkblot Test

What do you see?

The Swiss psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach (1884-1922) believed that your answer to this question reveals a great deal about who you are and how you experience the world. Some psychologists use this test to examine a person’s personality characteristics and emotional functioning, some organizations include the Rorschach inkblot test as a part of the standardized tests they use.

The test he designed at the beginning of the 20th century can be seen as an early instance of a starting transformation regarding society and psychology’s perception of genius.

It is suggested that this transformation occurred in the following two ways: firstly, there was a move from the pathologization, and secondly, genius began to become a desired and demanded personality trait.

The Rorschachʼs study, which he published under the title Psychodiagnostics, is in this sense ambiguous. On the one hand, his work helps to define various forms of intelligence and originality. On the other hand, it strictly distinguishes between good and bad forms of originality. Thus, genius appears in his study to be a well-identifiable trait. However, it could also continue to be an indication of mental illness.

Rorschachʼs experiment consisted of the interpretation of randomly generated inkblots, originally designed as a test of perception and conception rather than of imagination. In presenting the inkblots to his subjects, Rorschach was primarily interested in the forms of perception and the patterns of the association of available engrams (memory-pictures) with recent complexes of sensation.

The fact that Rorschach’s interest centered on forms and patterns of perception, rather than the characteristics of genius and creativity, becomes even more obvious when it comes to the scoring of the subject’s responses: Rorschach applied a rigorous hierarchy in the examination scheme, which considered mainly formal aspects of the responses first, and the content of the interpretations last. Notably, Rorschach himself assessed the scope of his test in a very sober way in our increasingly insecure world: The study gives an idea of the apparatus with which subjects receive experiences, but it gives no insight into the subjectʼs experiences themselves.

According to Rorschach, the interpretations can be examined by means of three questions:

  1. Is the subject’s answer only determined by the form of the blot or is there also an appreciation of movement and color?
  2. Is the figure conceived and interpreted as a whole or in parts?
  3. What does the subject see?

With these questions in mind, the responses of the subjects can be roughly classified in three groups: form answers, which are determined by the form of the blot alone, movement responses, which are additionally determined by kinaesthetic engrams, and color responses. Furthermore, the answers can be divided into interpretations of an inkblot as a whole, interpretations which focus on details, and responses which focus on very small or unusual details. With respect to the content of the response, stereotypical answers can also be distinguished from original interpretations.

In the course of his study, Rorschach identified distinguishable components of intelligence, such as the capacity for continuous and active attention, the ability to discipline logical function, and the ability to distribute emotional and associative factors by means of a goal idea. Some of the components of intelligence found by Rorschach are especially connected to creative and imaginative persons.

A will to produce something is indicated by interpretations of the inkblots as a whole or by answers which combine details to a whole. If you provide many interpretations of the inkblots as a whole and only a few detailed answers, you are probably an abstract thinker. If you give many whole answers and detailed responses alike, then you are presumably a more vivid thinker. From the Jewish perception, you may also want to take a look at this article about the Berlin Brunner Collection. 

Another indicator of intelligence is the number of responses that identify animals. Animal-related responses are such a common interpretation of the inkblots that a high frequency of these responses could indicate stereotyped rather than free associations. Alternatively, a small number of animal responses could indicate freedom of association and originality. A further indicator of originality and creativity is a high number of movement responses, which arise out of kinaesthetic engrams.

Rorschach found that interpretations which include movement are bound up with emotional processes. He describes this connection in terms of an emotional energy, an ability to create new and individual products. Subjects whose number of movement answers is higher than the number of color responses are believed to be more introspective and more creative, yet less practical and adaptable to reality. In a religious way, the non-existence of God (contrast of causation) posed another issue in relation to reality-related subjects.

With the originality of the interpretations, the quality and the content of the answers become more important. Although Rorschach highlighted various components of intelligence, including originality, there is still a very close connection between genius and mental illness in his study. A minute amount of original responses suggests stereotyped thinking, whereas too many creative answers indicate a subject who is “in the world but not of it. In addition, Rorschach distinguished between good and bad original answers according to the quality of form and movement in the given interpretation.

In the end, Rorschachʼs study is an early but ambiguous instance of a shift in the perception of genius, originality, and creativity in 20th-century psychology. Originality is primarily described in connection to intelligence. Introspective and creative people are depicted as effectively stable. However, it is still a long way until genius is generally perceived as non-pathological.

Apparently, even Rorschachʼs description of imaginative and creative people still involves some kind of mythical aura, and his evaluation of the quality of original interpretations is elusive. Rorschachʼs psychology is both intrigued by the abnormal and already interested in different traits of personality. It is this last aspect that makes him a pioneer of the psychology of creativity.