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This Is Only a Test: Rorschach Blots Rocking the Web


by Claudine Zap and Vera H-C Chan

Ever take the inkblot test—or at least see one administered on TV (like in any "Law & Order" episode)? If so, then you know that there are no right or wrong answers on a Rorschach test, but responses do provide insight to the test-taker's state of mind.

And yet, a controversy about the posting of 10 Rorschach inkblots on Wikipedia is rocking the scientific community, according to The New York Times. In addition to the blots themselves, the Wikipedia entry also includes the most common interpretations of what these blots look like—the old bison vs. butterfly vs. moth.

Taking the Test

The Rorschach test—a series of ink blots shown to patients, who are then asked to explain what they see—is named after Swiss psychologist Hermann Rorschach. Five of the blots are black-and-white, two are black, white, and red, and the last three are in pretty colors. (Or not pretty, depending on your view.)

The test-taker is evaluated on 100 variables, which will show what he/she truly feels deep inside—not just separating psychotic thinking from "normal" thought. One Rorschach FAQ site describes it as asking "How does someone view and organize the world around them?"

One nonprofit parenting site, SPARC, explains that it's not only what patients say in describing what they see, but also what "hand gestures and body movements" they make. (Interestingly, SPARC precedes its lengthy description of the whole process with a disclaimer, posted "after repeated letters from dozens of outraged psychologists and psychiatrists.")

Illuminating or Cheating?

Is the test's public availability stimulating free debate, or enabling test-takers to "cheat"? Depends on how you look at it:

• From the Wiki view: Supporters say it's informative—and searches on Yahoo! for "rorschach" have popped up 111% in the past week.

• From the psychologists' view: These "cheats" could help test-takers game the system and get in the way of research. And if patients peek at the interpretations beforehand, they may get in the way of their own diagnoses.

• From the test publishers' view: The test's publisher is "assessing legal steps" to have the images removed from Wikipedia, even though those images—created some 90 years ago—are in the public domain. Still, one spokesperson huffed that Wikipedia's position is "unbelievably reckless and even cynical" for recognizing concerned claims and posting the images anyhow.

But Does One See Results?

Despite the outrage over Wikipedia's posting, not all researchers believe in the test's validity. The method was severely criticized in the 1950s and revised in the 1970s. Scientific American revived its 2005 article that called Rorschach's test "frequently ineffective" as a mental health tool.

Ideally, at least two clinicians should be involved in the interpretation of the test's results, but often they may not agree. Even worse, according to the article "What's Wrong With This Picture?", research also "suggests" that the Rorschach can't really gauge violent tendencies, depression, sexual abuse in children, antisocial tendencies, and so on. Since the test is administered to all kinds of people, from convicts seeking parole to parents in custody battles, obviously a lot rides on the interpretation of the results.

By the way, the Wikipedia uproar erupted in June, when an emergency-room doctor added the remaining nine inkblots to the one Wikipedia already had. When The New York Times told the doctor about all the experts' complaints, he replied, "Show me the evidence." Preferably not in the form of an inkblot.

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