People V. Rorschach

by | August 5, 2009
filed under Feminism

Many of you may have heard about the recent uproar created when Canadian Dr. James Heilman posted the 10 original Rorschach inkblot plates to Wikipedia after their copyright ran out in the States. The furor reached a large audience after the New York Times ran a long article chronicling the argument between Wikipedia and psychologists who are angry that publishing the plates will provide a “cheat sheet” for patients taking the test.

Having to take all those personality and career aptitude tests in career planning class made me want to know more about how the tests were created. I just finished reading Annie Murphy Paul’s book The Cult of Personality, which devotes a chapter to the creation of the Rorschach test, so I was really excited to read about the debate going on around the inkblots.

It seems like there are a couple of issues here. First, there’s the issue of whether withholding knowledge from people is acceptable to prevent “cheating” on the test. I’m definitely going to take a stand against censorship on this one. Knowledge isn’t innately dangerous.  As Dr. Heilman points out in the New York Times:

“If someone had previous knowledge of the [Snellen eye chart, which begins with a big letter E and is available on Wikipedia],” he said, “you can go to the car people, and you could recount the chart from memory. You could get into an accident. Should we take it down from Wikipedia?”

It certainly seems to me that the Rorschach publishers threatening lawsuits are more concerned about their ability to keep profiting off selling the plates than they are about people faking results. If anything, taking this information away from the sole purview of “experts” is a positive step.

The second issue is whether it’s even possible to “cheat” on a test whose meaningfullness is so suspect. Let’s consider this picture (blot 7):


What do you see? I see a set of dental records taken to identify a homicide victim. This is because I just watched 3 episodes of The Closer. Apparently I’m supposed to be seeing human figures or faces. I should probably wait longer between my crime dramas and my personality tests.

A few days ago Newsweek ran an article by Wray Herbert called  “The Problem with the Rorschach Test: It doesn’t work”. Herbert outlines a 2000 report published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest that shows  that the Rorschach test has low scoring reliability, which means that since therapists disagree on how to evaluate the results, a different scorer can mean a different result. The report also found that the test is unable to accurately diagnose depression, anxiety disorders, psychopathic personality, or sexual abuse in children, despite being used for all these purposes.

Lilienfeld, Wood, and Garb, the psychologists who wrote the PSPI report, additionally published a 2005 article in Scientific American where they also discuss that the Rorschach has been shown to produce abnormal and misleading results for visible minorities.

But despite these findings, the Rorschach lived on. To show the test’s prevalence, Annie Murphy Paul cites a 2001 survey of American psychologists that found that 44% of psychologist-conducted child custody evaluations used the Rorschach to help make determinations, and around 2004 32% of U.S. psychologists were using the test in criminal forensic evaluations.

Paul quotes a psychologist who calls the Rorschach the “Dracula of psychological tests, because no one has been able to drive a stake through the cursed thing’s heart.” Maybe a Canadian Doctor and Wikipedia are helping us gather enough garlic to push it back into the shadows for good.

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