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Original Rorschach inkblots (1921) (courtesy of Redstone Press; all images from ‘Psychobook,’ Princeton Architectural Press)

The Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), a psychological test first published in 1943, doubles as an excellent poem. One section reads: “I do not like to hear strangers singing. Someone has been trying to get into my car. My hands have not become clumsy or awkward. I am afraid I am going out of my mind.” Still widely used by clinical psychologists to aid in personality analysis, the MMPI is among the century’s worth of psychological tests, games, and questionnaires compiled by Julian Rothenstein in Psychobook, just published by Princeton Architectural Press.

Original Rorschach inkblots (1921) (courtesy of Redstone Press) (click to enlarge)

From Rorschach’s symmetrical inkblots to the sad-faced cartoons in the “Feeling Test,” many of these tests resemble visual art pieces or absurdist poetry when taken out of clinical context. That’s partly because “psychiatrists and therapists have long used patients’ responses to images or pictures as the starting point for the discovery and analysis of their inner thoughts, hidden feelings, private fantasies, and unacknowledged hopes and fears,” Rothenstein writes. Given how many of these vintage tests are “compellingly stupid,” as author Lionel Shriver puts it in the book’s forward, they might as well be approached as accidental art than as scientific tools for understanding the human psyche.

In the 1980s, Pop artist Andy Warhol found the arbitrary stains and marks of Swiss psychologist Hermann Rorschach’s famous inkblot test so evocative that he based a series of paintings on them. First introduced in Rorschach’s 1921 book, Psychodiagnostik, the inkblots were, in turn, inspired by the fantastical “Klecksographen” drawings of 18th century poet and physician Justinus Kerner. Designed as a “projective” test, which presents the subject with images and lets them “project” their own meanings onto them, Rorschachs are still widely used in mental health facilities despite some critics considering them pseudoscientific.

Whether or not you believe in its clinical efficacy, the Rorschach sheds some light on the mysterious, subjective process of interpreting any image, artistic or otherwise. Look at this yellow-green vertical inkblot topped with curled tendrils, for example, and note what you see.

Original Rorschach inkblots (1921) (courtesy of Redstone Press)

It reminded me of Fallopian tubes, which, according to Psychobook, is one of five common responses and means I “have a sense of stalled potential, of putting an enormous amount into life yet still waiting for it to start.” It goes on: “Your idea of how things should be is very vivid, and if reality falls short of expectations, your considerable achievements provide little consolation.” I would have preferred to have seen “a strong man flexing his muscles,” which supposedly means “you are highly capable,” or “a pair of rams butting heads,” which means “You’re self-disciplined, reliable, good at seizing the initiative, and, in general, a whirlwind of activity.” Seeing a “scorpion” suggests you are “highly tuned, like a gymnast or ballerina, physically very sensitive. Sometimes you wonder whether there’s a connection between this and your self-worth, but anything that smacks of therapy tends to get on your nerves.” For believers and skeptics alike, the exercise can highlight the usually unconscious mental process of projecting figures, stories, and emotions onto abstract stimuli. Why are you seeing scorpions everywhere, you sensitive gymnast?

From the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT) (ca 1930) (courtesy Redstone Press collection)

The idea that responses to images can reveal unconscious emotions is also the premise of the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT), a projective test originated in the 1930s. It consisted of illustrated scenes that were “ambiguous and fraught with implication, and therefore open to imaginative interpretation,” Rothenstein writes. Projection, here, is characterized by perceiving in an object, figure, character, or picture “aspects of an internal emotional or psychological condition that are often hidden in ordinary discourse.” Is the old woman in the above image actually contemplating the fact that we all die alone, or are you just projecting?

Make a Picture Story Test (MAPS) (1942) (click to enlarge)

Make a Picture Story Test (MAPS) (1942) (click to enlarge)

The Make a Picture Story (MAPS) Test, invented by American psychologist E.S. Shneidman in 1942, consists of 67 paper figures, including superheroes, snakes, dogs, Santa Claus, ghosts, and naked ladies. The subject of this projective test is required to place one or more of the given figures within a miniature stage set, depicting places like a bedroom or a street, and then elaborate a story from the created scene. The psychologist then analyzes the imagined projections to gain insight into the subject’s personality or pathology.

The creepy and completely bogus Szondi Test, invented by the Hungarian psychiatrist Leopold Szondi in 1935, is based on the reactions of patients to six sets of photographic portraits of mental patients or “psychopaths.” Each set contains pictures of eight personality types considered “psychotic” by the test’s inventor: homosexual, sadist, epileptic, hysteric, catatonic, paranoid, depressive, and maniac.

The Szondi Test (1935) (click to enlarge)

Taking the test is simple: pick which face you’d be least excited to encounter in a dark alley. Your choice supposedly reveals your deepest “repressed impulses.” In other words, if you don’t like the photo of the sadist, you’re probably a repressed sadist yourself. “Given the absurdity of these classifications, no more need be said about the test, itself based on an elaborate and utterly ridiculous theory of elective fate,” Rothenstein writes in the book. Looked at as a photo series, though, the Szondi Test is sinister and captivating.

Just as psychological tests can double as artworks, so, too, can artworks function as psychological tests. The Abstract Image Test uses paintings by the likes of Sigmar Polke and Alfredo Volpi to illustrate the notion that associations prompted by abstract images can reveal of unconscious emotions or psychological tendencies. In Psychobook, such paintings are presented next to mid-20th century Tantric paintings from India, with musings by Mel Gooding on what your reactions might say about you. “What we come up with will inevitably in some way reflect our personality, our ways of thinking and feeling about the world, and our unconscious desires and antipathies,” Rothenstein writes. “What an image ‘means’ is really what we make it mean.”

In other words, seeing “a flying thing with eyes” in a Rorschach test is as valid as seeing “an alien figure with stubby feet and no center,” “a bikini-wearing goddess with unnerving face,” or “two furry little cubs, babies, or devils” — all apparently common interpretations of inkblots. In psychological testing, there are no wrong answers, only crazy ones.

Original Rorschach inkblots (1921)

Intelligence testing at Ellis Island (ca 1910) (image courtesy of Redstone Press)

Original Rorschach inkblots (1921)

Original Rorschach inkblots (1921)

Original Rorschach inkblots (1921)

Try out some of the tests featured in Psychobook here. Psychobook is available from Princeton Architectural Press.

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Carey Dunne

Carey Dunne is a Brooklyn-based writer covering arts and culture. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The Baffler, The Village Voice, and elsewhere.

10 replies on “The Art of Psychological Testing”

  1. You should take down the TAT and Rorschach cards IMMEDIATELY. Presenting them in public violates assessment security protocols. By making them common knowledge you take away the opportunity for the examiner to elicit a genuine response that will assist their client. This is very inappropriate and could lead to a misdiagnosis and improper treatment of a client with mental health needs. Please remove immediately.

      1. Ethics apply to us all. You are helping to cause possible harm to those seeking help for mental illness. As a Licensed Psychologist i have a professional responsibility to point this out. If you can remove it from the public domain, please do so.

        1. I hope that as a licensed psychologist you hopefully don’t make use of this “artwork ” in your practice you might do great harm as you manipulate your patients towards health as you see it Jim

          1. Unless you have five years of graduate level study at Boston College (resulting in two graduate degrees), five years of supervised clinical work, passed several state license exams, taught graduate level psych assessment courses, and have forty years of daily work in the field we cannot have a cogent discussion on the value of projective assessment in the treatment of mentally ill clients. Just try to trust that it’s like an X-ray or a blood test. If the clinician is skilled in reading and interpreting the results correctly, it can be a life saver. There is no manipulation involved. You read the results correctly and render a diagnosis.

          2. oh hush up, will you– it’s already apparent that you are an arrogant lout who thinks he is vastly superior to others– some ridiculous god that goes about spewing noisy opinions of self-inflated ego. Actually you fit the very character description of Charles Emerson Winchester III .

        2. obviously you belong to one of the professional nutcakes who believe he is vastly superior to others and therefore given the divine right to impose his subjective interpretation of world, life, et alia onto a person by not actually knowing them, but interpreting what you think you know about the world, psuedoscience et alia. Rorschach inkblots and and all the bs “interpretations are a lot of garbage. is a nice way to manipulate a person’s mind, life. Disgusting bs.

    1. the Rorschah are in public domain and they have long been openly discussed. Using such silly cards and games would very likely lead to misdiagnosis if left as tool of secret society or dimwitted, but incredibly arrogant doctors who presume they know what they know.

      The cards are stupid and banal. You can get just as much information about somebody’s state of mind by reading chicken shit splatter in a barnyard.

      Having been through this many times in my life and hearing the incredibly stupid answers that doctors fed me to answer, I can happily say that this is just garbage. So 2weeks later you get some idiotic phone call confirming that you’re not psychotic– oh what a relief–gee, I never thought i was. So much bs that passes as “science” but is more closely akin to reading tea leaves.

  2. This discussion is proof enough that psychologists like “jimjogs” truly exist. Totally sick…
    and totally archaic. I hope we can democratize aesthetics and how it is being abused, and expose to the general public all of these professional frauds.

  3. I think I might walk out on a therapist who pulled these tests out of a drawer. We have no clue how many lives have been ruined by erstwhile experts who came up with some idiotic “diagnosis” using these tools. The MAPS card on its own presents very unsubtle mind-programming, such as: compare the drawings M-1 and F-1. M-1 shows a nude man with his back to the viewer, and it appears that he is hunched over, as in shame or embarrassment. Whereas F-1 is a nude woman, full frontal, displaying herself unabashedly. C-5 and C-6 shows nude adolescents: she is hairless and full-frontal; whatever he’s actually got we can’t tell, because once again all we see is his backside. What IS this garbage? Treating them like the relics they are is the only decent use for them.

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