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Rorschach lore and the test's legacy

May 19, 2003|Rosie Mestel | Times Staff Writer

Hermann Rorschach was not the first psychiatrist to experiment with inkblots, and the origins of his famous test are not entirely clear. But, according to Rorschach lore, he may have been inspired by a 19th century parlor game called Klecksographie, or Blotto, in which participants made ink blots and then described what they saw. As a Swiss schoolboy, Rorschach was reportedly a fan of the game, even earning the nickname, "Klex."

The adult Rorschach became a psychiatrist working at large state hospitals. After noticing that schizophrenic patients saw very odd images in inkblots, he embarked on a careful study, using 40 blots and comparing the responses of schizophrenics to those of ordinary Swiss.

In his studies, Rorschach found other responses that seemed connected with traits such as introversion, extraversion and obsessiveness.

Nudged by colleagues, he published his findings in his groundbreaking 1921 book, "Psychodiagnostik." It was not a great moment in publishing history. "Psychodiagnostik" was "the kind of volume where sales were to close friends and relatives: minimal," said Irving Weiner, clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral medicine at the University of South Florida and president of the International Rorschach Society.

Soon after, the publishing house went bankrupt. Within the year, Rorschach was dead of a ruptured appendix.

But slowly, the test made its way around the world, and in the hands of two renowned American psychologists, Samuel Beck and Bruno Klopfer, it rose to fame in the United States.

Then, in the 1930s, came trouble. Beck and Klopfer battled bitterly over how the test should be administered and interpreted, penning diatribes about each other's methods.

If that wasn't bad enough, other psychologists were busy developing their own Rorschach methods, so that by the 1950s there wasn't one Rorschach test but five -- and therapists were mixing and matching them with merry abandon.

The in-fighting and an accumulation of data challenging the test's validity drove many psychologists away. It might have died out altogether were it not for a fresh-faced psychologist, John Exner, who had studied with Klopfer and Beck.

Starting in the 1960s, Exner made it his mission to unite the pair's theories, even if he couldn't unite the men. He spent long years stitching the best-supported bits of all five techniques into a grand, unified theory of Rorschach interpretation, finally publishing his "Comprehensive System" in 1980.

Exner saved the Rorschach test -- at least for a while. It is his method that is under attack today.

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