BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

Let the images in ...

Here's another title that found its way to me via the “Early Reviewer” program over at … and it is one of the rarer books (as regular readers will know from my frequent bitching) from LTER in that it did not disappoint at all … which is good because I ended up requesting it four months in a row (I guess the publisher kept making it available), before “winning” it. That said, Damion Searls' The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, His Iconic Test, and the Power of Seeing is a bit of an odd mix of genres, as it's both a biography of Rorschach and a survey of the history of the inkblots within the larger psychology/psychiatry context, plus a look at their legacy in popular culture.

On this latter point, I'm guessing that nearly everybody has some familiarity with – if only by name – the “Rorschach test”, as the phrase has filtered into the language as generally denoting something open to individual interpretation. Of course, there may be some who only know “Rorschach” as a character from the “Watchmen” comics and movie, whose mask is a constantly shifting pattern that recalls the symmetric figures on the test cards.

The test itself has an interesting historical arc … while still being used (with a fairly recent system for interpretation of responses which seems to greatly improve analytic value), it has largely fallen out of favor based on over-extension and applications that were ill-suited for its dynamics. The core set of 10 9x6” cards are key to the effective use of the test, and there have been alternate sets put out by other therapists which have not proved as useful as the originals developed by Rorschach. As well known as the test bearing his name has been, Hermann Rorschach himself is far less known, certainly in comparison to the likes of Freud and Jung … something quite likely due to his untimely death at age 37 in 1922. Additionally, the shift from intensively working with a highly-trained therapist (the Freudian model, for instance) and into the realms of psychopharmacology (where a psychiatrist might see a patient for 5-10 minutes to check on how their meds are working) made the classic Rorschach Test expensive, as it's designed to involve a therapist interacting in real time with a patient in a fairly open-ended session with the cards.

I feel like I need to apologize in advance if this review is a bit rambling … while I quite enjoyed the book, and have maybe a dozen of my little bookmarks in it, I'm finding that most are highlighting “I did not know that!” factoids rather that particularly to-the-point blocks of exposition that lend themselves to quoting here … so I think this is going to be long on the paraphrasing short on definitive block quotes.

A prime example of this is at the very start of the text, where a story is presented of a candidate for a somewhat sensitive position, who is being given a battery of assorted psychological tests, including the MMPI and TAT, which had come back reasonably normal, and the Rorschach test was the next one up. In the following I'll be pulling out the personal references and the “context” (the specific job) and trying to let this stand as a description of the nature of the test:
{the therapist} asked {the subject} to move from the desk to a low chair near the couch in her office. She pulled her chair in front of his, took out a yellow legal pad and a thick folder, and handed him, one by one, a series of ten cardboard cards from the folder, each with a symmetrical blot on it. As she handed him each card, she said: “What might this be?” or “What do you see?”.
      Five of the cards were in black and white, two also had red shapes, and three were multicolored. Here
{the subject} was asked not to tell a story, not to say what he felt, but simply to state what he saw. No time limit, no instructions about how many responses he should give. {The therapist} stayed out of the picture as much as possible, letting {the subject} reveal not just what he saw in the inkblots but how he approached the task. …

{the subject's} answers were shocking {deeply inappropriate responses in relation to the position he was being considered for}. … She systematically assigned {the subject's} responses the various codes of the standard method and categorized his answers as typical or unusual using the long lists in the manual. She then calculated the formulas that would turn all those scores into psychological judgment: dominant personality style, Egocentricity Index, Flexibility of Thinking, the Suicide Constellation. As {the therapist} expected, her calculations showed {the subject's} scores to as extreme as his answers.
      If nothing else, the Rorschach had prompted
{the subject} to show a side of himself he didn't otherwise let show. He was perfectly aware that he was undergoing an evaluation, for a job he wanted. He knew how he wanted to come across in interviews and what kind of harmless answers to give on other tests. On the Rorschach, his persona broke down. Even more revealing than the specific things he had seen in the inkblots was the fact that he had felt free to say them.
      This is why
{the therapist} used the Rorschach. It's a strange and open-ended task, where it is not at all clear what the inkblots are supposed to be or how you're expected to respond to them. Crucially, it's a visual task, so it gets around your defenses and conscious strategies of self-presentation. ...
Obviously, the test is not an inexpensive option – as it requires full involvement from the therapist for as long as it takes to get through the cards (often in multiple passes) plus the assessment process – which is likely why it has fallen out of favor, despite (as later noted):
When somebody is faking health or sickness, or intentionally or unintentionally suppressing other sides of their personality, the Rorschach might be the only assessment to raise a red flag.
As famous and familiar as the cards are, the author opted to only reproduce two of the ten images in the book. There is still a belief that knowing the images before taking the test weakens the response. Needless to say, there's a spectrum of usages, from the “classic” mode as described in the above to the “Group Rorschach Technique” (which was developed for the OSS in WW2) where auditoriums of hundreds were shown slides of the inkblots and asked to put in their closest take on them on a 10-item multiple-choice list for each, to versions (a further simplification of this) you can find on the internet. Searls does note that his reserve in putting out the images is something of a moot point, as the inkblot pictures can easily be found on the web, and you can get a set of the cards (if non-standard in size, thickness, and background color) on-line.

Hermann Rorschach was from Zurich, Switzerland, his father was a very talented artist (some of his sketch work is shown in the book), and art was a constant feature in his early upbringing. As one might get from the second part of the subtitle, “The Power of Seeing”, the visual sense was quite important to Rorschach, and there are significant parts of the book which deal with these modes of perception. While he did not come up with the inkblot method, it was something he was very interested in from an early age. There was a thing called Klecksography which had become popular in some art circles which was based on the method of dripping ink on a page and then folding it over to create a mirrored image. The young Rorschach evidently was enthusiastic enough about this process that his school nickname was “Klex”. Oddly, he was not the first to suggest the use of these images in psychology, but the first to substantially attempt to systematize the approach.

As this is primarily a biography of Hermann Rorschach, there's quite a lot of detail of the who/what/where of his life, from things about his family to friends he had at various points in time (like some of the Russians he hung out with in Dijon, France, one of whom he eventually wrote to Leo Tolstoy – who had been a mentor to his friend – to re-connect with some years after losing touch). Russia is a significant influence in his life … he was much enamored with (pre-Revolution) Russia, and ended up marrying a Russian lady, Olga Stempelin, and for a while lived there … the book notes that the Futurists, among other cultural groups in Russia, “showed him how closely psychological explorations could be tied to art”. There's a thread here which was a constant challenge to the Rorschachs, his getting appropriate approval/licensing to practice in a full role at various postings (this had been an issue in Russia), and most of these seemed to be less-than-ideal situations that were “settled on”. It's also remarkable that his inkblot test got as widely known as it did, as his book, Psychodiagnostics only came out a few months prior to his death, and was “not only preliminary but already a year out of date” (Rorschach having advanced some of the systems – anticipating some recent revisions – in the year or so since the book had started in the publishing process). In the late days of March, 1922, Rorschach was ill with severe stomach pains; Olga was of the opinion that it was simply a return of nicotine poisoning (Rorschach smoked constantly), and told everybody that “it was nothing”, and Rorschach was avoiding the medical staff. On April 1, he died “of peritonitis from a ruptured appendix”. The material on his life takes things up to about half-way into the book. The rest is a fairly convoluted tale of how his test spread around the world.

Obviously, without Rorschach around to steer his test's development and implementation, it almost immediately got assorted “flavors”, as different psychologists/psychiatrists began using it in according to their own views. One interesting thing was that a number tried to develop alternate sets of cards, but found Rorschach's ten inkblots far more predictive … evidently, the work that he put into finding key images was significant in sorting down to a usable test. As noted in the large block quote up top, there is a vast lot of data that has been amassed on the results of tests, and this has led to a handful of approaches that have sought to systematize the analysis of the subject responses. Notable of these is Dr. John E. Exner, whose scoring system (based partially on earlier work done by Bruno Klopfer – whose 1942 manual had been “taken up as the Bible of psychological testers” in the war years and beyond - and S. J. Beck) was published in 1969. However, due to issues with his estate, this was unable to be changed (much like, I suppose, Rorschach's 10 inkblots), and a new system, the Rorschach performance assessment system (R-PAS), was developed.

The Rorschach test is used at different levels in different countries, and there is notable variation how people from assorted cultures react to the images. In 1997 the R-PAS was normatized across an international data set, making it more diagnostically useful in this later manifestation, despite being less utilized than it had been from the 40's through the 80's (what the author describes as “the free-for-all of midcentury uses and abuses of the inkblots”). There's also some interesting data presented on how much it is applied in different countries, and in various contexts. Again, there's a lot of historical info here, from the use of the test for military/industrial manpower screening to one researcher from the Rorschach Institute (Douglas Kelly, who'd co-authored Klopfer's manual) that served as the “prison psychiatrist” for the Nuremberg Trials, having full access to the prisoners (along with “morale officer” Gustave Gilbert who assisted in the tests). This has some fascinating bits (especially for those interested in military history) looking at the analysis that Kelly and Gilbert provided about the Nazi leaders, especially focused on Hermann Göring.

Obviously, the book primarily looks at Rorschach's life and ideas, and how the inkblot test developed over time, but there is quite a bit of material (as noted up top) in the “I did not know that!” zone. Rather than leaving that as a tease, I figured I'd close out with one of these ...
      It is pretty shocking to realize that empathy is barely a hundred years old, about the same age as X-rays and lie-detector tests. Talk of an “empathy gene” feels exciting because of the friction between timeless aspects of the human condition and cutting-edge science, but in fact, “empathy” is the newfangled part of the term: genes were discovered first. What the word empathy described was not new, of course, and the ideas of “sympathy” and “sensibility” had long and closely related histories, but “empathy” recast the relationship between self and world in a new way. It also comes as a surprise that the term was invented, not to talk about altruism of acts of kindness, but to explain how we can enjoy a sonata or a sunset. ...
Much of this sort of thing is within context of other research than Rorschach's (although there's a good bit of his own synesthetic perceptions offered up), but it provided a lot of places for me to pop in my little bookmarks, if on passages that wouldn't be exactly to the point in this review.

Anyway, The Inkblots just came out in February, so you have a pretty good shot of getting a copy at the better-stocked brick-and-mortar book vendors. The on-line big boys, however, at this writing are offering the hardcover for nearly half-off, making it quite reasonable. The new/used guys do have copies, but not at any super deals.

I really liked this book, as it combined a lot of things that I have interest in. As noted, it's a bit of a mixed bag, with half being a biography of the man and the other half sort of being a biography of the test, both of which come with a rich mix of related materials fascinating in their own right. Needless to say, you'd need to have at least a general interest in psychology to really be enthused by this, but it might be touching enough bases that it would hold the interest of “all and sundry”.

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