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Medicine: Reaching Beyond Rorschach

5 minute read

In the 41 years since Swiss Psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach published a set of inkblots to be used for probing the personality, his name has become a household cliché for psychological testing. But when Rorschach died in 1922, at the age of 37, he had barely begun to extend the application of his test from mental patients to normal subjects, and he was still working with only ten cards. Those same ten cards are in use today.

Though some critics dismiss the Rorschach as an exercise in “clinical liturgy.” most psychiatrists and psychologists still give it high marks for uncanny ability to reveal the innermost secrets of a test subject’s personality and emotional problems. But it has one drawback: interpretation of the results is a difficult job in which even experts often disagree. Rorschach testers often have to ask questions to draw out more than one response to each blot, and judgment may be colored by the interplay of personality between tester and tested. Attempts to devise a standardized scoring system have generally failed. Now University of Texas psychologists have produced sets of carefully selected inkblots which they feel sure will make the results of Rorschach-type testing far more consistent and precise than they have ever been before.

Testing the Test. Led by Psychologist Wayne H. Holtzman, the Austin researchers have made two major reaches beyond Rorschach by 1) increasing the number of cards in a test set to 45, and 2) relying on only one response to each card. After thousands of trial runs, they claim to be able to classify a subject’s responses more objectively than Rorschach. Though the tester still has to grade the responses for emotional disturbance or disordered thinking, years of testing the test have convinced the Holtzman psychologists that they now know how to reduce interference from the tester’s own personality to a practical minimum.

To avoid tipping off future test subjects, the two main sets of H.I.T. (Holtzman Inkblot Technique) patterns are not widely published. The two sets are interchangeable, and the second set is used for retesting a patient to gauge his progress through therapy. A third, unpublished set of 45 cards, used for explaining the method, gives an intimate glimpse of the technique.

Interpretation by H.I.T. testers of what a subject sees, or thinks he sees, in a given blot depends on the same basic principle that underlies the Rorschach: that what seem, superficially, to be chance associations actually reveal a subject’s emotional makeup and deep unconscious aspects of his personality. Because most of the inkblot patterns are as symmetrical as animals or as human beings themselves, most test subjects are likely to spot anatomical images—bosoms, buttocks and even more frankly sexual symbols—where the lines converge in mid-blot. It is up to the tester to judge how far removed from reality a subject must be to see what he says he sees. Samples:

In this blot, Dr. Holtzman sees a horned bat’s face; “Baboons at play” is equally acceptable as a normal response. But such answers as “Reminds me of the Black Plague” are rated neurotic. Explains Holtzman: “This is an abstract association . . . an anxiety response.” At the schizophrenic end of the scale the psychologist puts: “A woman’s behind—pregnant, flying, you know.” Most subjects agree with Holtzman: this blot reminds them of an enraged executive listening to two telephones. The response “Mud smeared on a church window” is moderately but definitely neurotic, says Holtzman, because it “shows strong hostility toward conventional authority.” More nearly psychotic, because it suggests primitive appetites, is: “A throat with many throats inside it.”

In the middle of this blot, Holtzman and colleagues see a sumo wrestler. A subject who sees a fat devil flanked by two thin ones would have little to worry about. But the interpretation, “A fat cannibal king with two pregnant women,” says Holtzman, “is rich with hostility toward women.” A schizophrenic response: “Those things on the side look like charred tree trunks—only they’re pregnant.” A single offbeat response to a single inkblot, says Dr. Holtzman. “leaves the psychologist up in the air. You may have a guy who suppresses Charles Addams tendencies under a peaceful exterior, or he may really be a peaceful little guy who has a Charles Addams imagination. And that isn’t bad. Because our technique relies on many cards, we can judge whether an odd response is isolated and relatively insignificant, or whether it forms part of a pattern of responses of a similar type.” Bats Abroad. The H.I.T. tester deals a card at a time, notes how many seconds it takes the subject to answer, then scores the response. Regardless of training, testers are almost certain to agree on classifying the content of the response as human, animal, anatomic, sexual or abstract.

Equally predictable are scorings for location, form, color and movement. Even in such sensitive emotional areas as anxiety and hostility, H.I.T. testers report a high degree of consistency.

Thanks to its predictability, the H.I.T.

has already been adopted in many Veterans Administration hospitals. And because its inkblots cut across cultural and language barriers, the H.I.T. manual is already being translated into Polish and Spanish. A bat’s head is always a bat’s head—at least wherever there are bats.

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