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Rorschach tested

Blot out the famous method? Some experts say it has no place in psychiatry.

May 19, 2003|Rosie Mestel | Times Staff Writer

The red-and-black splashes on the card are bustling with images: bad-tempered crows, a butterfly in a belly and even a couple of blood-stained kidneys -- if it isn't a pair of monkeys contemplating their rears.

You, however, would see other things, for this card and nine others in the world-famous Rorschach test have strange powers and are said to reveal much about a person's mind when a skillful seer interprets them.

The cards have another uncanny power: to really, really tick people off.

The Rorschach inkblot test was named after its inventor, Hermann Rorschach, a young Swiss psychiatrist with smoldering Brad Pitt looks. More than 80 years later, the test remains one of the most popular personality tests in clinical psychology, still used in helping assess the mental health of patients, the sanity of defendants in murder trials and the suitability of parents in child-custody disputes.

But a chorus of critics has emerged in recent years, saying that much of the test is mumbo jumbo, better relegated to a medical museum along with radioactive tonics and bloodletting fleams. They say that the test has potential to do harm by misdirecting therapy or by influencing decisions in high-stakes situations such as custody disputes.

"If psychologists used tea leaves instead of the Rorschach, we'd probably be better off, because then, at least, no one else would take the results seriously," says James Wood, associate professor of psychology at the University of Texas at El Paso.

Wood and two other psychologists, Howard Garb and Scott Lilienfeld, say the test often labels perfectly normal people as sick and maladjusted. The cause: huge interpretive leaps that are made in connecting what someone sees in swirls of ink and the inner workings of the psyche.

They cite, for instance, one 2000 study in which 100 ordinary Fresno schoolchildren took the Rorschach test and were found as a group to be "grossly misperceiving and misinterpreting their surroundings" with a "distortion of reality and faulty reasoning" that approaches "psychosis."

The trio has waged a protracted assault on the test, ruffling feathers and spawning an unseemly Internet flame war and a head-spinning number of Rorschach "special issues" in psychology journals debating the meaning of all those bats, bears, mirrors and marmosets that patients spot in a blot. They fired off another volley this March: "What's Wrong With the Rorschach?" a book they co-authored with Wood's wife, psychologist Teresa Nezworski.

"We have upset people incredibly," says Garb, a psychologist with the Pittsburgh Veterans Affairs Health Care System and the University of Pittsburgh. "It isn't nice to be upsetting your colleagues. But I want to see clients receive good care. And that means we can't just keep doing something because 'It's what we've always been doing.' "

Rorschach defenders are fighting back fiercely. They counter that critics are unfairly scapegoating the test with a tenacity that borders on the fanatical. They say the test, which homes in on people's differing reactions to ambiguous images, is far more solid than detractors claim, and that time after time, Wood, Garb and Lilienfeld have failed to acknowledge the evidence in support of it.

"There's been some pretty extreme criticisms floated about in the past few years, a sort of, 'The Rorschach world is crumbling' message," says Greg Meyer, associate professor of psychology at the University of Alaska Anchorage, and a champion of the test. "The evidence just doesn't warrant it."

Controversy isn't new for the Rorschach test. Wave after wave of psychologists has attacked the test over the decades, but it always came back swinging, imbued with a Rasputin-like resistance to bullets and barbs.

The test's biggest challenge came in the 1960s, when multiple methods were being used to interpret the blots and the two most eminent Rorschach practitioners had long refused to speak to each other. It took years of toil by a young psychologist, John Exner, to standardize the test and whisk it from the jaws of death.

Today, many psychologists simply dismiss the test. But in the world of psychological assessment, it remains one of the most frequently used personality tests in the field, trailing somewhere behind the front-running Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (or MMPI) and the so-called Wechsler IQ test. In a 1995 survey of clinical psychologists, 82% reported using the Rorschach "occasionally," and 43% said they did so "frequently" or "always."

In some ways, the test has changed little since Hermann Rorschach devised it in the far-off 1920s. The same 10 inkblots are used, printed in only one place in the world. The publisher, Hans Huber of Switzerland, still uses old-fashioned machinery to faithfully render the splashes, splotches and swirls.

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