Google paid tribute to Swiss psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach on his 129 birth anniversary with a doodle of his famous inkblot test. Geeta Padmanabhan tells us how it is used to analyse personality

On November 8, Google paid tribute to Hermann Rorschach on his 129th birthday with yet another stunning doodle. It had the famous psychiatrist sitting in a chair taking notes while two hands (the patient's) held up a sheet of paper with the inkblots Rorschach used for analysis. Google made the blots interactive so you could scroll them back and forth for a better look and record your interpretation of each. On the wall behind was the word Google — G in a frame, two pictures, another G, a vase with a tall plant and a window frame with highlighted bars forming E. The doodle had a button for sharing your interpretation of the inkblot on Google+, Facebook and Twitter.

Born on November 8, 1884 in Zurich, Switzerland, Rorschach qualified to be a psychiatrist in the universities of Berne and Zurich, worked in mental institutions in Switzerland and Russia and settled down as associate director of Herisau Asylum, Switzerland. While in high school he fell in love with Klecksography — a Swiss game where people make pictures out of inkblots — and was quickly dubbed “Klecks” by friends. The Rorschach test, meant to measure social behaviour is supposed to have been born out of his interest in art and psychoanalysis. Wondering why different people often saw entirely different things in the same inkblots, he began, while still a medical student, showing inkblots to schoolchildren and analysing their responses.

First to use inkblots

In 1917, Rorschach came across psychiatrist Szyman Hens' method of analysing patients' “fantasies” using inkblot cards. At that time, psychiatrist Carl Jung was using word-association tests to tap into the unconscious mind. With his test, Rorschach became the first researcher to use inkblots to analyse how patients “projected their own associations onto seemingly random stimuli.” Rorschach's system had 10 inkblot cards which were shown to the patient one at a time for responses. Rorschach would evaluate them on a rubric of location, quality, content and conventionality. From the data he would prepare a map of the patient's social behaviour. He tested 300 patients and 100 control subjects before putting his conclusions of what he called “form interpretation experiment” in his book Psychodiagnostics (1921). Tragically, he died the very next year leaving his work somewhat unfinished. His scoring system was later improved by psychologists like Bruno Klopfer and in the 60s Rorschach's inkblot test became one of the most-used “projective personality” tests in the U.S., ranking high in the list of tests for outpatient mental healthcare.

How it works

This is how it works: The tester and the subject sit next to each other at a table, the tester sitting slightly behind the subject to facilitate a “relaxed but controlled atmosphere”. The cards measure approximately 18x24 cm each. Five of the blots are in black ink, two in black and red and three are multicoloured on a white background. The subject responds to them one by one in free speech. What do they mean to him? The tester presents them again in a set sequence and the subject studies them and answers questions like: “Where do you see what you noticed originally? What makes it look so?” As the subject examines the inkblots the psychologist notes down everything he says and does — even details like whether he rotates the cards, whether he asked for permission to rotate them. The psychologist analyses the responses using a rubric and a scoring sheet. There is psychological interpretation, complex algorithms, or both. The test is supposed to provide data about cognitive ability and personality differences like motivations, responses and personal/interpersonal perceptions.

Rorschach believed the test would help sketch a person's personality profile. The inkblots (external stimuli) would bring out needs, motives and conflicts since the process was somewhat like what happens in real-life situations. It would help compare and contrast different personalities. People with similar personality-types saw the same things in the inkblots. The inkblots were an overnight success because they made possible behaviour readings. But several psychologists trashed them as unscientific. After all, methods of interpretation differed among counsellors. A lot of the conclusions are subjective and therefore controversial, but the test is still used by psychologists to analyse a person's “personality traits and emotional functioning.” It's also used for detecting underlying thought disorders — why are some people hesitant to talk of their thinking processes openly? The test is standard for personality tests in jails, hospitals, courtrooms and schools. It has been found useful in establishing parental custody rights, parole eligibility and assess children's emotional issues.