What the Rorschach Test Really Shows Us
The evocative blobs and curves of the Rorschach inkblots are ubiquitous. By now, nearly a century after a Swiss psychiatrist developed them—as a neutral panel of images designed to elicit revealing responses in patients—they’ve transcended the realm of diagnostics and become stitched into history and popular culture. The series of cards was used to test Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg prison; animated inkblots morph into one another in the video for Gnarls Barkley’s hit song, “Crazy”; and President Obama declared during the 2008 election that he, himself, was a Rorschach test. The 10 cards, some in black and white, some in color, have been administered to millions of people. They’ve also been portrayed in films, printed on coasters, imitated, decried as pseudoscience, and defended as a valuable window into the psyche.
What are they? Not inkblots, exactly. In fact, the Rorschach images are a series of paintings, carefully crafted to be evocative without looking like they were created for any purpose. Whatever their reputation among psychologists, their enduring appeal even after decades of use and overexposure speaks to their success as an unusual artistic achievement: What they look like depends on who is looking at them. An exhibit on display through June 30 at Harvard’s Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments, “X-rays of the Soul: Rorschach and the Projective Test,” explores the images and the variety of uses and meanings society has found in them since they were published in 1921.
The Rorschach inkblots have their roots in a European parlor game called Klexographie, in which people would create inkblots and imagine what they represented. Hermann Rorschach enjoyed the game so much that he was nicknamed “Klex.” But the idea of using an inkblot to diagnose pathology came when Rorschach, a psychiatrist and artist, realized such images, and the associations they created, might be used to probe the mind in a systematic way. He created a set of 10, tested them extensively in patients and nonpatients, and published a book describing his results and how to use the inkblots.