History of Projective Tests

Stop Calling Everything a Rorschach Test

Recently the Rorschach test has seen another revival in media headlines.

Today, it sometimes seems as though everything is a Rorschach.

— Damion Searls, 2016, Time Magazine

Recently the Rorschach test has seen another revival in media headlines. Writers at the Atlantic all the way to the LA times are quick to compare the latest developing controversy to the famed inkblot test. The gist of their point is that “people will see in (x) what they want to see.” Whatever that object is—a company, cryptocurrency, election, sports team, stand-up hour of comedy, or warfare tactic—it serves as an ambiguous figure that people can project their personalities onto, just like the famed inkblot test. So it seems. 

Adage or Cliché? 

While some outlets are more than happy to administer this figure of speech to the public, others have filed it under the do not touch bin. The Washington Post identified the Rorschach metaphor as one of the top 200 most popular journalism cliches for writers “trying to think outside the box” (Lazoda, 2014). At a glance, the metaphor seems harmless, and it appears to make a clearcut point. However, it undermines the power of the actual Rorshach test, which itself has survived over a century of public and scientific scrutiny. The metaphor carries along with it the history of hogwash that made the test more notorious than celebrated. 

The Rorschach test has long been a cultural symbol and a metaphor for all things polarized and uncertain. As NYT journalist Ruth Whippman wrote, “It is perhaps no surprise that the Rorschach metaphor has become a cliché of modern journalism.”

This tired trope is off the mark, and it's ready to be retired. 

Inkblots: Half Art, Half Science 

The Rorschach began its journey into popular culture through the inkblot and its power to sculpt the important, often hidden aspects of personality. It also doubled as a tool that aids in the differential diagnosis of mental health disorders, most notably schizophrenia. It was a medical innovation that could detect intrinsic qualities of people—their individual differences. 

The inkblots themselves are iconic works of art whose origins began with Leonardo da Vinci. Even Andy Warhol was inspired to create his own series. Rorschach was the son of a painter, and a talented visual artist himself with a great appreciation for the creation of movement on paper. Rorschach was adamant that only his inkblot cards should be used experimentally due to the meticulous nature of their crafting. They were more than ink splashed on paper. He enriched the blots with a brush and paint—using the techniques of painters from generations past—to achieve the look that made the inkblots seem so familiar and forgein at once. His artistic methods have now been verified by neuroscientists and mathematicians—showing that his inkblots sit in a sweet spot of fractal complexity that enables a maximum range for seeing things in them (Abbot, 2017).

The inkblots are not just some ambiguous splashes on ink thrown onto paper, they’re well crafted visual aesthetic primes the mind to seek out sensation, and bring forth the coming memories and associations.

Now you may be thinking, “isn’t that exactly what these journalistic metaphors are getting at?” 

No. Because the inkblots are not just a work of art, or a controversial invention, they have been painstakingly verified via the most rigorous of scientific methods as a reliable and valid measure of an individual’s psychological functioning. 

The Journey to Scientific Verification

It began in Rorschach’s clinic and ended in a fiery back and forth between critics and crusaders of the inkblot test. Starting with Rorschach himself, the doctor empirically tested the inkblots on patients and normals, settling on about fifteen cards for use—though only ten cards were printed in his manuscript, Psychodiagnostik, due to cost concerns. There were benchmarks for normal, popular, and unique responses to the inkblots. If it were truly a test where people could “see what they want to see” then you would expect infinite variation. Or at least enough to the point that any consensus or normativity would be mute. However, since the test could aid in the detection of mental disorders, latent or not, it became a favored clinical tool for psychiatrists. 

Many critics noted the test had drifted from its origins, where perceptions in form, movement, and color were articulated into an aesthetic language that decoded how a person experienced. Instead, it gained popularity as a content based method that focused on the symbolism behind a person's protocol. On top of that, there were over five different scoring systems in use. It seemed like practitioners were set on making their own versions, rather than adhering to a common methodology. That’s when John Exner decided to beef up the psychometric properties of the test, and create a unified approach under the Comprehensive System. Critics jumped at the opportunity to scathe his work, and some called for a moratorium on the Rorschach. 

However, for every critique there was a retort, as Exner’s system evolved version by version. And by the time of his death, the critics pulled back from their position, and admitted that the modern Rorschach had empirical merit, though they refused to admit that it was as powerful as advertised. 

Ride Into The Sun

Unlike the journalistic metaphor, the Rorschach itself has endured endless criticism, despite its inherent value for clinicians, researchers, and even marketers. The continued use of this metaphor preserves the negativity and stigma emblazoned on the Rorschach test—that it is pseudoscience best left for cultural debate, and not scientific inquiry. Instead, champion this diverse psychological tool and celebrate its rich, complex history. Then take that uninspired journalistic cliché and ride into the sun.


Abbott, A. (2017). Fractal secrets of Rorschach's famed ink blots revealed. Nature.

Lozada, C. (2014). 200 journalism cliches - and counting. The Washington Post. 

Searls, D. (2016). 2016 election is not a Rorschach test. Time.

Whippman, R. (2017). Tell me what you see: The Rorschach test and its inventor. The New York Times.

Similar posts

Get notified on new psychological insights

Be the first to know about new psychological insights that can help you optimize customer touchpoints and drive business growth.