The Art of Psychological Testing

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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