Hermann Rorschach MD (1884-1922)



Rorschach in about 1910


Hermann Rorschach MD, was a Swiss Freudian psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, best known for developing a projective test known as the Rorschach inkblot test. This test was reportedly designed to reflect unconscious parts of the personality that “project“ onto the stimuli. In the test, individuals are shown 10 inkblots – one at a time – and asked to report what objects or figures they see in each of them. Using interpretation of “ambiguous designs“ to assess an individual’s personality is an idea that goes back to Leonardo da Vinci and Botticelli. Interpretation of inkblots was central to a game, Gobolinks, from the late 19th century. Rorschach’s, however, was the first systematic approach of this kind.


Rorschach was born in Zurich and spent his childhood and youth in Schaffhausen, in northern Switzerland. His mother died when he was twelve. He was known to his school friends as Klecks, or “inkblot“ since he enjoyed klecksography, the making of fanciful inkblot “pictures“. Rorschach’s father, an art teacher, encouraged him to express himself creatively through painting and drawing conventional pictures. As the time of his high school graduation approached, he could not decide between a career in art and one in science. He wrote a letter to the famous German biologist Ernst Haeckel asking his advice. The scientist suggested science, and Rorschach enrolled in medical school at the University of Zurich. Rorschach studied under the eminent psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler, who had taught Carl Jung. Even before the young Rorschach began to study psychology, the medical profession had flirted with imagery association. In 1857, a German doctor named Justinus Kerner published a book of poetry, with each poem inspired by an accompanying inkblot. Alfred Binet, the father of intelligence testing, also tinkered with inkblots at the outset of the 21st century, seeing them as a potential measure of creativity. While stating that Rorschach was familiar with these particular ink blotches reaches no further than educated conjecture, we know that he was familiar with the work of Szyman Hens, an early psychologist who explored his patients’ fantasies using inkblots, as well as Carl Jung’s (learned from Freud) practice of having his patients engage in word-association and (Freud’s words), “the royal road to the unconscious“ which is dream analysis.


The excitement in intellectual circles over psychoanalysis constantly reminded Rorschach of his childhood inkblots. Wondering why different people often saw entirely different things in the same inkblots, he began, while still a medical student, showing inkblots to schoolchildren and analyzing their responses. In 1857 German doctor Justinus Kerner had published a popular book of poems, each of which was inspired by an accidental inkblot, and it has been speculated that the book was known to Rorschach. French psychologist Alfred Binet had also experimented with inkblots as a creativity test and, after the turn of the century, psychological experiments where inkblots were utilized multiplied, with aims such as studying imagination and consciousness.


By July 1914 Rorschach had returned to Switzerland, where he served as an Assistant Director at the regional psychiatric hospital at Herisau, and in 1921 he wrote his book Psychodiagnostik, which was to form the basis of the inkblot test. The Inkblots were an overnight success due to the seemingly miraculous behavior readings they provided. However, they have been considered pseudoscience and remain controversial.


After noticing that schizophrenic patients associated vastly different things with inkblots than other patients, Rorschach, following some experimentation, created the first version of the inkblot test as a measure of schizophrenia in 1921. The test, however, only came to be used as a form of personality assessment when Samuel Beck and Bruno Klopfer expanded its original scope in the late 1930s. Since then, psychologists have frequently used the various aspects of people’s responses (e.g., inkblot focus area) to make judgment calls about broad personality traits. Ironically, Rorschach himself had been skeptical about the inkblots’ value in assessing personality.


After studying 300 mental patients and 100 control subjects, in 1921 Rorschach wrote his book Psychodiagnostik, which was to form the basis of the inkblot test (after experimenting with several hundred inkblots, he selected a set of ten for their diagnostic value). Although he had served as Vice President of the Swiss Psychoanalytic Society, Rorschach had difficulty in publishing the book and it attracted little attention when it first appeared.


Only one year after writing his book, however, Rorschach died of peritonitis at the age of 37, on 1 April 1922, probably resulting from a ruptured appendix.


In 1927, the newly founded Hans Huber publishing house purchased Rorschach’s book Psychodiagnostik from the inventory of Ernst Bircher. Huber has remained the publisher of the test and related book, with Rorschach a registered trademark of Swiss publisher Verlag Hans Huber, Hogrefe AG. The work has been described as “a densely written piece couched in dry, scientific terminology“.


After Rorschach’s death, the original test scoring system was improved by Samuel Beck, Bruno Klopfer and others. John E. Exner summarized some of these later developments in the comprehensive system, at the same time trying to make the scoring more statistically rigorous. Some systems are based on the psychoanalytic concept of object relations. The Exner system remains very popular in the United States, while in Europe other methods sometimes dominate, such as that described in the textbook by Evald Bohm, which is closer to the original Rorschach system and rooted more deeply in the original psychoanalysis principles.


Rorschach never intended the inkblots to be used as a general personality test, but developed them as a tool for the diagnosis of schizophrenia. It was not until 1939 that the test was used as a projective test of personality, a use of which Rorschach had always been skeptical. Interviewed in 2012 for a BBC Radio 4 documentary, Rita Signer, curator of the Rorschach Archives in Bern, Switzerland, suggested that far from being random or chance designs, each of the blots selected by Rorschach for his test had been meticulously designed to be as ambiguous and “conflicted“ as possible.


There is a well-known scene in Woody Allen’s Take The Money And Run (1969) when Virgil Starkwell (Allen) takes a psychological test to join the Navy, but is thwarted by his lascivious unconscious. The psychological measure that proves to be Starkwell’s undoing – rejected, he turns to a life of crime – is the Rorschach inkblot test. Although Rorschach died very young, his namesake remains embedded in our perception of psychology, alongside Freud’s couch and Pavlov’s dog.


Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.