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A new biography challenges common misconceptions about the Rorschach test and the man behind it

The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, His Iconic Test, and the Power of Seeing

Damion Searls
Crown
2017
416 pp.
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We’re all familiar with the inkblots that make up the Rorschach test: black and white, bilaterally symmetrical figures that hover close to familiarity. Or, at least, we think we are. In modern times, the term “Rorschach test” often serves as a metaphor for our divisiveness, as shorthand for an encoded message, or as a warning that appearances can be deceiving. But we may not know as much as we think we do about this classic psychological tool or the man behind it, argues Damion Searls in The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, His Iconic Test, and The Power of Seeing.

In tracing the story of the inkblots, Searls sets out to restore two vital stipulations of the Rorschach test: that there are good answers and bad answers and that the test is a measure of perception, not of imagination or projection. The book addresses many questions fundamental to understanding the genesis and effectiveness of Rorschach’s eponymous test as well as the life of the man himself.

In chapter 1, Hermann Rorschach is introduced as a young physician heavily influenced by his father, a drawing teacher and scholar of artistic form who died of lead poisoning when Hermann was 19 years old. Excerpts of recalled conversations and letters between Rorschach and his sister, Anna, suggest that remorse for not having been able to help his father, who was afflicted with severe neurological dysfunctions at the end of his life, led him to pursue a career as a psychological clinician.

Rorschach’s work in multiple asylums inspired his view that no delusion was absolute nonsense, that there was a meaning behind each, and that it was his duty to make sense of it. He was soon introduced to a tool that would facilitate this understanding.

Hermann Rorschach/wikimedia commons

Hoping to create images that were suggestive of shape and movement, Rorschach hand-painted each of his 10 eponymous inkblots.

Inkblots were used in psychology to gauge a person’s imagination for nearly two decades before Rorschach developed his version. Rorschach’s contribution was born of his desire to detect the differences in perceptual processes that explained seemingly nonsensical delusions and neuroses. When designing his inkblots, he strayed from previous designs that relied on random applications of ink and were, in his opinion, only appropriate if a test was meant to measure the imagination of a subject.

Rorschach wanted each blot to be suggestive enough to offer clues as to how individuals perceived what they saw. To accomplish this, he hand-painted his blots, adding details that would imply movement to some and color to draw the viewer’s attention to others, all with a symmetry that mirrored living forms.

In a chapter entitled A Very Simple Experiment, Searls explains the scoring system that Rorschach developed, as well as the psychological domains the 10 original inkblots were believed to measure (e.g., psychological illness, intelligence, and personality). Rorschach, we learn, paid little attention to a subject’s specific answer, considering a good response to be one that reasonably reflected the shape of the blot and a poor response to be one that failed to capture its contours.

Most subjects who had been deemed mentally healthy gave similar answers over hundreds of tests: Card V, for example, “looks like a bat. Or maybe a butterfly.” Subjects who deviated from commonly reported responses might, according to Rorschach, be schizophrenic or highly intelligent, depending on how well they integrated the entire form into the answer.

Rorschach also quantified whether the subject perceived movement and color appropriately and whether he or she described the whole image or just selected details. (Individuals who addressed the image as a whole first were typically considered healthy, whereas those who focused on specific elements first were more likely to be in a depressive state.)

Upon publication, Rorschach’s work received praise for its insightfulness but was criticized as being both too objectively scored while also being too interpretive. It provoked controversy with academic scientists who demanded quantitative results and psychoanalysts who demanded humanistic flexibility.

The defense of the test by Rorschach and others was hindered by its lack of a theoretical basis. The test’s own creator could not explain why or how his inkblots consistently worked, only that they did. This controversy continues to the present day, as for some the accuracy justifies the test and for others it will always be dismissed as divination.

Searls has painstakingly woven together both the enduring strengths of Rorschach’s iconic test and the controversies and convolutions surrounding it, all while capturing Rorschach’s distinctive design, to which the inkblots owe their longevity. The book’s engaging narrative, born of both detailed research and artistic sentimentality, is a fitting tribute to its enigmatic subject.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of Translational Science and Molecular Medicine, Michigan State University, Grand Rapids, MI 49503, USA.