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For decades, people have used the Rorschach Test to diagnose mental illnesses and determine personality traits, which hasn't always been the best idea. But modern studies suggest that this test actually can tell us some things about the way people see the world.

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[♪ INTRO].

Take a look at this and see what it looks like to you. Okay, and this one.

And one more. For decades, psychologists have used these inkblots to diagnose mental illnesses and gain insight into people’s personality traits. Which may seem like kind of a sketchy way to understand someone’s mind.

And some people have definitely overestimated its power. But modern studies of this old technique suggest that in some ways, this test actually can tell us things about the way people see the world. The traditional inkblot test, called the Rorschach Test, is a set of ten inkblots.

Basically, you look at these colored splats and describe what you see. Then, depending on your answers, a psychologist may be able to tell something about how you process the world, or even about your personality. Well, allegedly.

The use of inkblots as a psychological tool is really controversial. And taking a look at its history, you can see why. The Rorschach Test is named after the Swiss psychologist Hermann Rorschach, who published it in 1921.

Weirdly enough, he actually first got into inkblots through a popular game in the 19th century called “Klecksographie.” In this game, players make their own inkblots by dropping ink onto paper, then folding it along the middle and pressing the halves together to create symmetrical patterns. Then, they compete to come up with the most and wildest interpretations of what the blot looks like. Apparently, Rorschach loved this game.

Enough to get the nickname “Klex” from his high school friends. And when he entered the realm of psychology, it was still on his mind. Enough so that he became the first person to turn inkblots to the task of understanding how people with mental illnesses process the world.

Early in his career, he noted that people with schizophrenia seemed to interpret the patterns differently from other players. And later in his career, he decided to test that observation further. He designed hundreds of inkblots and tested them on 300 patients and 100 controls, and ultimately, he claimed these splotches could be used to diagnose mental illness.

He found that viewers without mental health conditions tended to give similar answers to each other, while people with similar mental health diagnoses gave answers that resembled each other but differed from the typical answers. Eventually, he settled on just ten inkblots that seemed to draw out the most measurable differences. And in 1921, the year before Rorschach died, he published these ten images in a book titled Psychodiagnostik.

From there, the inkblots became widely available, along with the coding system Rorschach developed, which he claimed could diagnose various mental disorders, such as psychosis. And before long, the images became wildly popular in the U. S except, as a personality test.

Which is not what the Rorschach Test was designed for. Like, at all. People who weren’t trained in psychology, or even working in a psychological field, began introducing them into their work.

For example, in the 1960s, U. S. job recruiters started using them to sort through potential employees, thinking they could pick out the personality traits they wanted. Even psychologists got really liberal with their applications of the test.

And that’s where the science started to really get... mushy. After Rorschach’s death, inkblots were so popular that many scientists began adding to his body of work. They tried to find more and more aspects of personality and cognition that these inkblots could potentially tease out.

And along the way, they began to adopt different methods of interpretation and new ways of scoring. Researchers at the time eventually rolled all of these additions into a new, standardized inkblot system, called the Rorschach Comprehensive System. But the problem was, not all of those additions were as rigorous as they should have been, and inkblot tests began to earn a reputation as pseudoscience.

Around the same time, other approaches to psychology that attempted to draw meaning from the subconscious mind were falling out of favor, and the Rorschach Test went down with them. So, these days, it’s easy to write off the Rorschach Test completely, and there are a lot of strong, negative feelings towards it, for a lot of good reasons! First there was all the mushy personality science that followed Rorschach’s death.

Then there’s the fact that the results of the test can depend a lot on the person scoring it. And, to top it all off, it doesn’t seem to actually reliably diagnose most disorders. So, it’s pretty problematic.

But there may still be some glimmers of usefulness in there. A team using modern analysis methods found that some parts of the test in its current form still seem to have some merit. A study published in 2013 systematically reviewed 53 existing meta-analyses on the Rorschach Comprehensive System, and found that, of the 65 main variables it claims to test, 13 had some really solid support.

These 13 variables were the ones that assessed how you see and think about the world, or your cognitive and perceptual processes. Which, lo and behold, is what Rorschach designed the test for in the first place. The researchers concluded that Rorschach’s inkblots are of “notable use” for identifying those with psychotic disorders, such as schizophrenia.

People with schizophrenia often experience thought disorder, which messes with their ability to organize their thoughts. Because of that, the way they interpret the blots is noticeably different, more scattered, and in some cases it can demonstrate their feelings of paranoia. Again, just like Rorschach first noticed.

It’s unlikely that psychologists would use test in place of other diagnostic tools we have for mental illnesses these days, but now we know that it does have some value. The Rorschach test may seem like a cliché example of how wacky and pseudoscientific psychology can be, and thanks to its history, it does have a lot of baggage. But with more rigorous research using modern research methods, there’s reason to hope that something useful can be pulled from the mush.

And if nothing else, it stands as a cautionary tale to future scientists. Be careful how you use psychological tools, or you might end up ruining them for everyone. Thanks for watching SciShow Psych, which is produced by Complexly.

If you want to keep imagining the world complexly with us, check out Crash Course Business: Entrepreneurship Learning Playlist, hosted by Anna Akana. In this 17-episode series, Anna will explore how to turn an idea into a successful business. Even from the very beginning, our first video can help you figure out if you want to be an entrepreneur, or if you already are.

You can find the link for the playlist in the description. [♪ OUTRO].