Is the Rorschach test still valid?

Surely many remember that scene from the film Someone flies over Cuco’s nest, by Milos Forman (1973), in which the well-mannered Randle McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) jokingly pretended to masturbate while an evaluator handed him some abstract slides so he could say what they suggested. In 1921, Swiss psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach could hardly have imagined that his invention would become perhaps the most famous and controversial psychological assessment tool in history.

A little history

Although Rorschach originally proposed it as a perceptual discrimination test for the differential diagnosis of people with schizophrenia, its purposes were soon expanded. According to psychodynamic assumptions (based on the idea that some of our psychological activity is beyond our control and yet has a huge influence on our psyche), the interpretation of ink blots reveals unconscious aspects of the personality.

The original test consisted of ten symmetrical sheets of ambiguous black spots on a white background, although colors were added later.

For example, the second leaf, consisting of a black symmetrical figure with red areas in the center, usually evokes interpretations such as: “I see two naked people having sex.” In this context, the therapist assesses the dominance of sexual content in the assessed patient’s thinking.

The test’s influence on popular culture – in films, TV series, books… – has partially distorted its nature, use and interpretation. Along with the couch, the Rorschach test is one of the most recognizable symbols of psychoanalysis.

And, as you can imagine, since its creation, various forms of application, codification and interpretation have arisen. The most commonly used currently are the Rorschach Performance Assessment System (R-PAS) and the Comprehensive Exner System (CS).

Major criticism from scientific psychology

It is likely that the reader has come this far to find out what is the current situation with this tool in psychology, which is closely related to the situation in psychoanalysis itself and other psychodynamic schools.

The truth is that the Rorschach test remains very controversial in scientific psychology. There are even those who ask to lock it forever in the chest of history. The main criticism it received was:

  • Lack of reliability. The consistency and stability of test results have been questioned. That is, the possibility that the same person will receive very different scores at different times without any real change.

  • Lack of reality. They raise doubts about whether the test actually measures what it purports to measure, such as personality traits. Critics point to the lack of evidence of a relationship between grades and other external variables that theoretically should be related.

  • Vulnerability to Examiner Bias. That is, the likelihood that interpretations and scores assigned to responses vary significantly across raters depending on their biases, expectations, and subjectivity.

Defense arguments

Confronted with these positions, other voices find some utility in the test and defend it with the justification that it is difficult to validate because it is a semi-qualitative test. That is, not all the information it provides is numerical or quantitative, as is the case with other assessments.

The above-mentioned Exner Comprehensive System, developed in 1969, is perhaps the best attempt to bring scientific rigor to Hermann Rorschach’s century-old creation, since it combines the most important of the great previous systems. His main achievements were the standardization of rules for administering, codifying and interpreting tests, and the development of more accurate quantitative indicators based on large samples of the population.

New Applications

Outside of the clinical context, the Rorschach test has been the subject of recent research in the field of personality psychobiology, which has revealed its complex interactions with various brain functions. Experts have found that different responses to the test are associated with certain brain and cognitive factors.

Thus, according to various studies, the test involves a complex cognitive process that involves broad brain circuits in both hemispheres, including attention, perception, memory, language and executive functions.

Moreover, it has been observed that the interpretation of ambiguous stimuli, such as those used in a test, requires an interaction between memory and perception. The right hemisphere plays a crucial role here, especially when it comes to processing emotions and social skills.

Prefrontal activation, especially in the aforementioned right hemisphere, is significantly higher during the test compared to other visual perception tasks. This brain region is closely associated with a wide range of cognitive functions and is involved in aspects of personality, psychopathology, and emotional processing.

In addition, researchers have found that the amygdala, a part of the brain associated with emotions, plays an important role in how people respond to the Rorschach test.

As for its connection with psychobiological models of personality, there is evidence of correlations of reactions with certain character and temperament traits.

For example, Zuckerman’s five-factor model of personality found that sensation-seeking tendencies are directly related to different reactions and content of the Rorschach test.

In addition, characteristics such as impulsivity, irresponsibility, and aggression-hostility showed inverse relationships with variables from the same test. However, more research is still needed to better understand these associations.


Although the Rorschach test continues to be used in clinical settings, it has lost its presence in academic settings in parallel with psychoanalysis and psychodynamic fields.

In any case, it can still be considered a unique tool for studying personality. Unlike other tests, it is aimed at exploring those aspects that often remain hidden from the person himself and cause psychological problems. By interpreting ambiguous spots, people allegedly reveal – according to psychodynamic approaches – unconscious aspects of their personality. It is, so to speak, a way to hear what they are not saying directly through their responses.

Thus, one of the strengths of the test is that it offers a qualitative and global view of a person, which can complement the results obtained from psychometric tests, which are usually more focused on quantitative aspects of character.

Finally, the Rorschach test will be useful not only in clinical therapy, but also in the context of personality psychobiology research, given the cognitive complexity that interpreting its slides requires.

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