You’re likely familiar with the “inkblot” test, or what is formally known as the Rorschach test. The fascinating quiz is featured in many modern films and television shows, often advertised in fiction as a way to identify psychotic or disturbed individuals. In reality, the test was designed to help psychiatrists and psychologists understand the inner-workings of their patients. But who decided that showing someone a messy collection of ink blots and gauging their responses could help anyone understand their personalities? Good old Hermann Rorschach, who poured his life into proving that his experiment could uphold psychiatric predictions.

Rorschach’s interest in inkblots

Hermann Rorschach’s passion for ink blots didn’t emerge randomly. In fact, his childhood was filled with influences and interests that may have affected his future ambitions to use inkblots to test the personalities of patients. When Rorschach was a child, he enjoyed playing Blotto, a form of Klecksography, in which he produced art and charade-based pictures out of inkblots. Although the activity was popular for all children at the time, his interest didn’t wear off after adolescence. He began to study both art and psychoanalysis, guided by teachers who saw equal value in the use of inkblot testing as he did. His interest soon moved into studying the artwork of mental patients, especially after the diagnosis of “schizophrenia” was coined by Eugen Bleuler. While writing about hallucinations for his dissertation, Rorschach found something that amazed him: many schizophrenic patients had unique responses to the game Blotto. Although most psychiatrists turned their noses up at his findings, he dove headfirst into studying Blotto in relation to mental stability in 1917.

Testing patients with Blotto

While working at Russia’s Krombach hospital, Rorschach began to develop the basis for his inkblot test. Between 1918 and 1921, Rorschach tested a number of his patients using a stunning 40 inkblot cards of his own making. He came to favor fifteen of his inkblot cards and used them to test over 400 subjects, 117 of which were a control group beyond the mental health facility. While his test may have started as a glimpse into the personalities of mental patients, his end goal was to produce a testing system for the diagnosis of schizophrenia. Rorschach’s test was more than a game of Blotto or on-paper charades. He created a calculated scoring system for his inkblot test, assessing if the patient was examining the whole image or merely a part, if the patient mentioned color, and what form the patient believed the inkblot was taking. While he poured his life into the creation of this test, it took him some time to find someone who was willing to publish his findings.

Besides the general indifference from the psychiatric community towards his studies, Rorschach encountered another roadblock: printing prices. No publishers wanted to waste such a massive amount of ink on a book that may not sell. Luckily, in 1921, Rorschach finally found a publisher, the House of Bircher, that was willing to print his book, Psychodiagnostik. However, they would only produce it under one condition: he had to narrow down the number of inkblots. Rorschach, realizing he was out of options, cut down his creation to a mere 10 favored inkblots (the ones we know and love today). Sadly, just after Rorschach’s book was published, he fell ill…and didn’t see his book gain even a bit of popularity before he passed a year later. Soon after, though, Psychodiagnostik began to fascinate other psychologists, psychiatrists, and professionals in the field of psychology. They all tripped over themselves trying to find new and effective ways to score the Rorschach test.

The evolution of the Rorschach test

Up until the 1970s, many in the field of psychology pitched their two-cents about how the test should be scored. Ultimately, five individual theories emerged: the Beck system, the Klopfer system, the Hertz system, the Piotrowski system, and the Rapaport-Schafer system. However, psychologist John E. Exner didn’t believe that these scoring systems were unified enough to be accurate judges of the results of the Rorschach test. He took it upon himself to produce a scoring system that stole from the best of each pre-existing system to create a well-rounded way to assess patients that the Rorschach test was administered to. In 1973, he published The Rorschach: A Comprehensive System, creating a scoring system that is still used for the Rorschach test in the present day.

So, what does the test consist of the in the 21st century? The instruction says that a professional psychologist must administer the test. They show a patient Rorschach’s inkblot cards, some in color and some in black-and-white, and ask patients to describe what the inkblots resemble. Those who are taking the test can fiddle with the cards, turn them any direction, and make wild guesses about what the inkblots resemble. Psychologists can prod into their minds further by asking questions about their responses and recording their reactions to both the test and their inquiries. The patients’ tests are then assessed based on a number of factors, such as the colors they focused on, the portions of the inkblots that they reported on, the figures they saw, their response times, and more. Certain response times have been recognized as a potential indicator of schizophrenia, making the Rorschach test most famous for helping contribute to a diagnosis of schizophrenia. However, while the Rorschach test has evolved across time, it never gained clinical popularity as an accurate diagnostic tool. Many believe that, at best, it provides some insight into a person’s personality and basic thought patterns. The psychologists who believe that the Rorschach test is a valid testing method acknowledge that it is only useful in identifying or affirming a slim number of mental illnesses, mainly schizophrenia. However, 82% of clinical psychologists still use it at least every once in a while. Whether it’s a useful tool or not, there’s no doubt that the inkblot test has influenced diagnostic testing in modern psychology.