Rorschach Fail: The Test’s Validity Is Again Scrutinized as Plates Appear on Wikipedia

July 31, 2009 05:30 PM
by Shannon Firth
Some psychologists are lashing out at Wikipedia after the site published 10 Rorschach inkblot plates along with their most popular responses on its site. Critics say the argument is moot, since the tests themselves are useless.

When Is an Inkblot Just an Inkblot?

Earlier this week, The New York Times and other media outlets publicized a spat between Wikipedia and psychologists over Wikipedia’s refusal to remove the projective tests known as “Rorschach tests” from its user-generated site.

Many psychologists and psychiatrists have registered on Wikipedia to take a side in the melee. Dr. Bruce L. Smith, a psychologist and president of the International Society of the Rorschach and Projective Methods, posting as SPAdoc, says he’s worried that access to the test would “render the results meaningless.”

Dr. James Heilman, the Canadian man responsible for posting the images—or plates, as they are referred to—likened the possibility of having to remove the plates to the Chinese government’s censorship of the Tiananmen Square Massacre.

And a representative of Hogrefe & Huber Publishing, a German company that published Hermann Rorschach’s book, told the Times it would consider legal action against Wikimedia, the organization that oversees Wikipedia.

Wray Herbert, a writer for Newsweek, responded to the kerfuffle, saying in effect, “who cares.” He cited an extensive research study about the Rorschach and other “projective” tests, published by Psychological Science in the Public Interest in 2000, in which the study’s authors, Lilienfeld himself, James Wood and Howard Garb, deemed the test a failure.

With over 100 variables for psychotherapists to consider, its “scoring reliability”—the likelihood of different testers drawing the same results—was low; it differed more than 50 percent of the time.

And in terms of test validity, Herbert writes, “With the exception of schizophrenia and similarly severe thought disorders, the Rorschach fails to spot any common mental illnesses accurately.” Herbert added, it’s even less effective in diagnosing Native Americans and other minorities.

However, he noted that the most up-to-date survey shows “four in 10 clinical psychologists still use the Rorschach ‘always or frequently’ with patients.”

Background: The Rorschach Inkblot Test

The projective test, designed in 1921 by Hermann Rorschach, used a subject’s response to 10 nebulous images to reveal certain personality traits, and was thought to help diagnose psychological disorders.

The test’s legitimacy was doubted in the 1950s, but it regained popularity after John Exner published the Comprehensive System (CS), an outline of specific standards for interpreting subjects’ responses.

Still, Science Daily noted, the system’s detractors say the norms are outdated, poorly represent the population as a whole, and “actually classify a portion of normal subjects as having pathological tendencies.”

Related Topic: Personality tests affect hiring choices

In 2007, Fast Company writer Alison Overholt explained, “[Personality tests] gained their greatest power in the 1950s as a means to create homogenized bureaucracies filled with carbon copies of the most industrious employees.”

In the 1990s a culture of “individuality” eclipsed the need to find the “ideal employee.” However large companies are once again using personality tests.

Although preparing for the test is advisable, Overholt cautions against trying to cheat the system; it will reflect poorly on the interview subject if he or she is caught.

Also, Steffanie L. Wilk, a management professor at Wharton, told Overholt, “You just don’t want an environment that won’t be amenable to your style. You’re choosing them as much as they’re choosing you.”

NEXT: Twitter Used to Test Psychic Ability >

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