Hermann Rorschach

Swiss psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach (1884-1922) was the developer of the inkblot personality test commonly known as the Rorschach test. The ten inkblot cards designed by Rorschach in the early twentieth century have continued to be used by mental health professionals as one of the standard means of compiling a subject's personality profile.

Swiss psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach was the developer of the widely-used personality evaluation method known as the Rorschach test. The Rorschach test involves the assessment by a psychiatrist or psychologist of a subject's responses when asked what he or she sees in a series of inkblots. Rorschach believed that this method could determine the amount of introversion and extroversion a person possessed, as well as clues about such characteristics as intelligence, emotional stability, and problem-solving abilities. In addition to general use in psychiatry and psychology, the test has come to be used by a wide-range of groups such as child development specialists, the military, prisons, and employers. Although the test was Rorschach's only contribution to the field of psychiatry, the popularity of the tool has made his name one that is recognized both inside and outside the profession.

Rorschach was born on November 8, 1884, in Zurich, Switzerland. He was the oldest of the three children of Ulrich Rorschach, an art teacher in Zurich schools; he also had a sister named Anna and a brother named Paul. His father's artistic interests may have been behind the young Rorschach's fascination with inkblots in his childhood. The boy's preoccupation with these random designs earned him the name "Kleck," German for "inkblot," from his classmates at school. In his adolescence Rorschach became an orphan after his mother died when he was 12 and his father died when he was 18. A year after his father's death, the young man graduated from the local high school with honors.

Focused on Psychiatry in Medical Career

After leaving high school, Rorschach went on to college with the goal of earning a medical degree. He spent time at a number of medical schools—in Neuchâtel, Zurich, and Bern in Switzerland and Berlin in Germany— completing his studies in Zurich after five years. While taking courses in Zurich, he had been a top student of Eugene Bleuler and had worked in the university hospital's psychiatric ward. Continuing to pursue his interest in psychiatry, he undertook a residency at a mental institution in Munsterlingen, Switzerland, in 1909. At the asylum he met Olga Stempelin, a Russian employee there, and the two began a relationship that resulted in their marriage in 1910. The couple had their first child, Elizabeth, in 1917; their second child, Wadin, was born in 1919.

Rorschach earned his doctor of medicine degree from the University of Zurich in 1912. The following year, he and his wife accepted posts at a mental institution in Moscow, Russia, where they remained for one year. In 1914, Rorschach secured a job as a resident physician at the Waldau Mental Hospital in Bern, Switzerland. He advanced to a higher position two years later when he was hired at the Krombach Mental Hospital in Appenzell, Switzerland. Respected as a leading psychiatrist in his native country, he was elected vice president of the Swiss Psychoanalytic Society in 1919.

Developed Inkblot Test

As early as 1911, Rorschach had begun research on the potential uses of inkblots in determining personality traits. He had done some early experiments using schoolchildren as subjects during his medical training at the University of Zurich, and he had also read about the inkblot experiments of other psychology researchers, including Justinus Kerner and Alfred Binet. He found, however, that his predecessors in this subject had not developed a consistent method of administering and evaluating such a test. Over the next decade, Rorschach conducted studies to develop such a method, using both patients in the mental hospitals where he was employed as well as healthy, emotionally stable people. Based on the information he gathered, Rorschach was able to devise a system of inkblot testing that provided a systematic way of testing and analyzing a subject that could produce meaningful results for understanding a person's personality traits.

Rorschach presented his new system in his book Psychodiagnostik (1921), which appeared in English translation as Psychodiagnostics: A Diagnostic Test Based on Perception in 1942. The book not only outlined Rorschach's famous inkblot test, but also discussed his wider theories of human personality. One of his primary arguments was that each person displays a mixture of the "introversive" personality, one motivated by internal factors, and the "extratensive" personality, or one more influenced by external factors. He believed that the amount of each trait in a person could be measured by using his ink-blot test, which could also reveal an individual's mental strengths or their abnormalities.

Planned Improvements on Testing Method

For his inkblot test, Rorschach designed 10 cards, each with a different symmetrical inkblot pattern. The designs, while not depicting any particular objects, do contain shapes suggesting physical items. The cards also vary in color: five are only in black and white, two are primarily black and white with some color, and three are in color. The person administering the test is to show each card to the subject without displaying any reaction to the subject's answers. The subject is instructed to describe what he or she sees in the inkblot, and the subject's answers are then analyzed in several different areas, including the part of the picture focused on, the length of time to generate a response, the content of the response, originality, and the subject's attention to such details as color, shading, and form. The value and accuracy of the test were based in large part on the ability of the person administering the test to interpret the results properly. But it still presented one of the most effective means of evaluating personality ever devised. Rorschach, however, looked upon Psychodiagnostik as a preliminary work that he intended to develop further.

Rorschach's book was not immediately given much attention when it appeared. Psychiatrists at that time did not think that personality could be tested or measured, so they initially ignored his work. By 1922, however, the ideas in Rorschach's book had become the subject of some discussion, but most psychiatrists remained wary of his new methods and did not feel that they could yield useful results, although they did acknowledge the potential value for the free-association thought that the inkblots generated. Rorschach discussed his plans to improve upon his inkblot system at a meeting of the Psychoanalytic Society that year, but this work was never completed. A short time later, Rorschach contracted appendicitis and died in Herisau, Switzerland, on April 2, 1922.

Rorschach did not live to see the great success that his testing methods would enjoy. His original ten inkblot designs were put into use by his students and colleagues and quickly gained a popularity that has continued to the present time. While detractors continue to exist, numerous studies have compiled statistical data about results of the Rorschach test, providing practitioners with an even greater degree of accuracy in interpreting results. Rorschach's ink-blots are still in use in a number of areas, but those who use it now tend to look upon the results simply as indicators of potential psychiatric traits or problems, rather than an absolute diagnosis. But Rorschach's contribution to the fields of psychology and psychiatry is still considered a valuable procedure that remains one of the standard testing methods used to compile a personality profile by mental health professionals.

Further Reading on Hermann Rorschach

Klopfer, Bruno, and Douglas Kelley, The Rorschach Technique: A Manual for a Projective Method of Personality Diagnosis, World Book, 1942.

Larson, Cedric A., "Hermann Rorschach and the Ink-Blot Test," Science Digest, October, 1958, pp. 84-89.