Rorschach and awe

The New York Times covers the recent flap over the internet publication of the ink blots used in the Rorschach test. While the images are out of copyright and can be legally uploaded, some American psychologists are furious that the validity of the test may be compromised.

The test has been controversial since it was created and partly because of what it symbolises. It is one of the few remaining tests that are drawn from the psychoanalytic tradition and so battles over the Rorschach are always partly battles over the validity of Freudian-ideas.

You can see the influence of these ideas in how it is used. It is a type of ‘projective’ test, where participants are shown the images and then asked to give their impressions. The psychologist writes down what they make of each image and then interprets what they say and do.

These interpretations supposedly give an insight into the person’s personality, loosely framed in Freudian concepts.

The original version of the Rorschach was quite clearly hokum, but over the years the ‘comprehensive system’ was developed by psychologist John Exner which allowed independent clinicians to come to similar conclusions when assessing the same responses.

Not everyone agrees on this and, on the basis of evidence reviews, some argue that the test’s reliability has been exaggerated. But the trouble is, even if it is reliable, it’s still a bit rubbish. It doesn’t seem to correlate well with other mental health measures and has a particular tendency to ‘diagnose’ schizophrenic tendencies in perfectly healthy people.

While the release of the ink blots onto the internet seems to have caused controversy among US psychologists, most European psychologists are likely to be rolling their eyes, as the test never caught on and is largely extinct.

However, the wider issue of test material being released online is of significant concern.

Almost every psychological test relies on the fact that the person being assessed has no foreknowledge of the material. In technology terms, they rely on security through obscurity for their validity.

Currently, this is enforced by the test companies only supplying tests to qualified professionals, charging excessively high prices for each one and enforcing copyright. This is backed up by professional organisations who come down like a ton of bricks on anyone seen to be promoting wider availability.

As anyone involved in security will tell you, this model is doomed to failure in the age of the internet as it only takes one significant breach for the test to be publicly available.

Psychologists need to start designing tests where knowledge of the test material does not have such a profound influence on performance, but unfortunately, this requires a significant shift in current thinking and a huge research effort to validate the tests. Hence inertia weds us to our current doomed methods.

Link to NYT ‘A Rorschach Cheat Sheet on Wikipedia?’

4 Comments

  1. liedra
    Posted July 30, 2009 at 9:35 am | Permalink

    There was an interesting comment on this report over at my friends’ ethics blog: http://cappe-postgrads.blogspot.com/2009/07/tell-me-what-do-you-see.html and how the comparisons made by the Dr. who posted the pictures to wikipedia were really stupid (comparing wanting to not post the pictures with Chinese censoring of Tiananmen square?! wtf?). Anyway, thought you might be interested :)

  2. rita
    Posted July 30, 2009 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

    So much for “Giving psychology away” (George Miller). Get it all out there, I say – or is it a case of the emperor’s new clothes?
    When is psychoanalysis and its hangovers going to be considered the woo it is?

  3. smallerdemon
    Posted July 30, 2009 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

    “Almost every psychological test relies on the fact that the person being assessed has no foreknowledge of the material.”
    Ah, the good old days. They are soon to be over. The upside is that this will force people into more creative ways of making assessments other than a generalized one size fits all testing which probably has some statistically significant outliers.
    I am also reminded of your book from this statement of the fact that there are certain ways the brain works that foreknowledge is irrelevant anyway. Many of the self experiments you can do in the book garner exactly the results you are looking for despite foreknowledge of how it works. i.e. your brain follows a process that is not impacted by knowledge of the process. In my own mind it brings up questions of the physiological basis of psychology and the fuzzy line between what is physically predictable and where the separation point is between a physical response and subjective response.
    I find the whole idea of the Rorschach tests completely silly. It’s a pattern recognition test and that is all. It’s going to be influenced by so many different factors in a person’s life experiences (and THOSE are going to be specific to the culture and social environment of the individual) that attempting any objective psychological analysis of it is ridiculous.

  4. Michael MacAskill
    Posted July 31, 2009 at 2:26 am | Permalink

    I think that’s a remarkably generous interpretation of the reasoning behind the excessive fees charged for access to neuropsychological/psychiatric tests.
    It seems to be that neuropsychologists have a default mindset that they are entitled to make money out of their tests, no matter how banal. The rest of us, practicing in other fields in the science of psychology, fully disclose our methods to allow others to replicate and refine them if they should so desire. In fact, we desperately hope that is what will happen.
    The idea that, for example, a simple multiple choice pencil & paper questionnaire should be restricted and charged per copy only restricts the extent to which it will be applied and further validated. These charges restrict the development of science rather than promote it.


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