NEWSLETTER, VOLUME 8; NUMBER 6
THE RORSCHACH AS A TASK OF VISUAL REPRESENTATION
Martin Leichtman, PhD, Guest Contributor
In spite of the vast body of literature that the Rorschach Test has generated over the last century, remarkably little attention has been given to the nature of the Rorschach task itself and to articulating a rationale for its administration and scoring. Conceiving of his work as “predominantly empirical,” Rorschach devoted only a few pages of Psychodiagnostics (1921) to outlining his theory of the test and acknowledged that its theoretical foundation was incomplete. Thirty years later, Holt (1954) quoted Rorschach’s statement about its incomplete foundation and noted that the situation had not changed. In subsequent decades, citing the same statement, Schachtel (1966) and Exner (1986) made exactly the same point.
What Hertz (1951, p. 308) recognized as “a failure to develop a basic underlying theory for our method” has had a number of unfortunate consequences. As Exner (1986) noted, it contributed to widely divergent approaches to analyzing and interpreting the test. It also isolated the Rorschach from the broader body of psychological theory and research. Complicating matters further, it is my belief that the leading theories regarding the nature of the Rorschach Test, ones assuming that it is chiefly perceptual in nature, are untenable and cannot provide a foundation for test procedures or scoring. I would like here to summarize these arguments and outline an alternative view of the Rorschach as a task of visual representation that can address them.
Perceptual Hypotheses and their Limitations
Rorschach believed that his test explored a particular form of perception, “apperception.” Because “chance stimuli’ (inkblots) do not make a good fit with memory traces of particular objects, he contended, the process through which responses are formed is one that accentuates and makes manifest interpretive aspects of perceptual acts. Major Rorschach theorists have typically accepted this premise, but offered more sophisticated formulations emphasizing greater interactions of perceptual and associative aspects of the response process (Rapaport, Gill, & Schafter, 1946) and stressing the roles of secondary processes involving censorship and judgment in the selection of responses to be shared (Schachtel, 1966; Exner, 1986).
All theories that assume that the Rorschach task is basically a perceptual one, however, are subject to three sets of criticisms. First, perceptual theories are untenable on methodological grounds. Serious students of perception give no credence to a technique for investigating perceptual processes that relies on the testimony of “untrained introspectionists” (Levin, 1953; Mooney, 1962). They would assert that there are also strong reasons for questioning whether Rorschach subjects, trained or untrained, are aware of the factors determining their percepts (Baughman, 1956). Moreover, they would find laughable the assumption implicit in Rorschach scoring that percepts are typically determined by single aspects of stimuli rather than the convergence of multiple determinants (Zubin, Eron, & Shumer, 1965).
Second, perceptual theories are untenable on theoretical grounds. The meanings attributed to Rorschach determinants bear only a tenuous relation to theories of perception and have been justified chiefly on the basis of their utility in
distinguishing clinical groups (Mooney, 1962). Explanations of particular determinants slide back and forth among different meanings of the term “perception,” ranging from ones centering on processing sensory stimuli to ones in which the term is synonymous with experience or cognition. However, the most decisive argument against perceptual theories is simply a consideration of responses to Card I. A bat or a jack-o-lantern are both considered perfectly good responses to the card as a whole, yet bats and pumpkins bear little resemblance to one another or to Card I were we to place photographs of them next to it. In fact, most Rorschach cards look so little like the objects they are said to depict that sophisticated theorists have suggested that the test is based on “misperception” or “misidentification” (Cattell, 1951, Exner, 1986): Weiner, 1986).
Finally, perceptual theories cannot explain the process through which the Rorschach is mastered. For example, they cannot give an adequate account of the nature and timing of children’s approaches to the test or responses (Leichtman, 1996). Indeed, the phenomena most characteristic of young children’s protocols, perseveration and confabulations, are distinguished by how little they are based on perception. It is not until the early elementary school years that ways of managing the Rorschach look at all like it is a perceptual task (Klopfer, Spiegelman, & Fox, 1956).
Over the years, perhaps the strongest reason for retaining perceptual conceptions of the test is that alternatives that have been advanced are, if anything, more unsatisfactory. For example, some have suggested that it is a test of imagination (Dearborn, 1898; Whipple, 1920; Piotrowski, 1950), projection, and association (Lindzey, 1961). Others, giving up on any such theories have argued that it is best treated as a disguised interview (Zubin, 1956). Yet such alternatives to perceptual theories of the Rorschach are problematic because they cannot provide an account of its perceptual aspects or a rationale for scoring systems practitioners have found useful (Leichtman, 1996).
The Rorschach as Visual Representation
Most problems facing perceptual theories can be addressed if we assume that the Rorschach task, like those of other projective tests, is essentially one of artistic representation in which particular media (e.g., language or visual material) are molded into forms that express ideas to an assumed audience (Frank, 1939). In the case of the Rorschach, inkblots are used in a manner similar to that in which a sculptor handles stone. They are shaped to depict particular concepts that are to be shared with others.
Representation is an intentional act in which a subject molds a medium to stand for a referent (e.g., an object or concept) in order to share it with an audience that may be internal or external (Werner & Kaplan, 1963). When the Rorschach is viewed in this way, perceptual and associative processes play important roles (the medium is a visual one and ideas come to mind to be represented), yet these processes function and have meaning only as aspects of a superordinate symbolic act. Approaches to Rorschach interpretation that focus on the location and determinants of percepts examine the ways in which the medium is used; those that center on content, focus on the choice of referents; and those that stress interpersonal aspects of the response process focus on the addressor-addressee or self-other dimension of the symbol situation (Lerner 1991; Schafer, 1954; Schachtel, 1945).
Viewing the Rorschach as a task of visual representation provides a better understanding of critical aspects of the test. First, it allows for an appreciation of the distinctive quality of the Rorschach stimuli. As Schafer (1954) observed, the value of inkblots in this regard do not lie in their lack of structure or ambiguity because they have a clear perceptual structure. It lies in their plasticity or richness as a medium.
Second, representational theory accords better with the tacit ways in which both subjects and examiners interpret the task. Were subjects to take instructions to tell what the card “looks like” literally and offer a truly perceptual response (“It is an inkblot.”) rather than complimenting them of the accuracy of their perception, we might suspect organicity, marked constriction, or resistance to the task. All who truly take the test recognize that it is a semiotic task in which stimuli are meant to stand for something.
Third, representational theory provides a better foundation for scoring practices. Objections to inquiry procedures based on introspection disappear because, although perception is a private act, representation is ultimately a public one in which a response is not complete until the subject shows the examiner the location of the image and identifies the basis of the representation. Objections to assumptions about scoring on the basis of a single determinant are also easily addressed. Perception may be codetermined by multiple aspects of stimuli, but it is perfectly legitimate to base representation on a single shared attribute of the medium and referent (“It is “smoke” because of the blackness.”). Moreover, whereas in perception one would not expect the same stimulus array to give rise to numerous, widely differing percepts, a single form such as a curved line might stand for utterly different concepts such as a hill, a breast, or the sun rising. Conversely, whereas in perception one would not expect different stimuli to give rise to the same percept, in representation, such events are unremarkable. One may use form, color, or shading to convey the idea of fire on the Rorschach. Rorschach scores for location and determinants can be easily justified as ways of codifying the manner in which the symbolic medium is used in representational acts.
Fourth, representational theory requires no changes in the interpretation of the meaning attributed to specific Rorschach determinants. Although perceptual theories about the meaning of determinants such as form color, achromatic color, and movement make some use of the inferences about the sensory qualities of stimuli, they are based chiefly on the role of central cognitive processes in perceptual acts (Schachtel, 1966). In some cases such as movement responses, traditional explanations of the their meaning are representational theories masquerading as perceptual ones (Blatt, 1991). The term “representation” can be substituted for ”perception” in almost any existing explanation of Rorschach determinants with no change in meaning.
Finally, representational theory provides a better account of the developmental process through which the Rorschach is mastered. Although perceptual theories have difficulty explaining why confabulatory protocols appear around the age of three or why the test begins to be taken in its standard form in the early elementary school years, such phenomena can be easily accounted terms of the development of capacities for representation (Leichtman, 1996). The appearance of the first responses in childhood occurs at roughly the period that Piaget designates as the beginning of the epoch of representational thought; the confabulatory responses and fantasy elaboration that characterize the responses of 3 and 4 year-olds arise at precisely the age at which developmental theorists note a flowering of the capacity for dramatic play and fantasy; and the emergence of standard forms of taking the test corresponds to the shift to Piaget’s stage of concrete representations. The major qualitative shifts in children’s Rorschach responses also correspond to similar changes in their capacity for artistic representation Leichtman, 1996).
In summary, adoption of a representational theory of the Rorschach allows us to overcome the numerous methodological and theoretical objections that plague perceptual theories, provides a basis for understanding the rules that govern its administration and scoring, and allows the Rorschach theory to be integrated into the psychological literature at large.
Baughman, E. E. (1959). An experimental analysis of the relationship between stimulus structure and behavior on the Rorschach. Journal of Projective Techniques, 23, 134-183.
Cattell, R. B. (1951). Principles of design in “projective” or misperception tests of personality. In: An introduction to projective tests, eds. H. H. Anderson & G. I. Anderson. New York: Prentice-Hall, pp. 55-98.
Dearborn, G. (1898). A study of imaginations. American Journal of Psychology, 9 183-190.
Exner, J. E. (1986). The Rorschach: A comprehensive system, Vol. 1: Basic foundations 2nd Ed.). New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Frank, L. K. (1939). Projective methods for the study of personality. Journal of Psychology, 8, 389-413.
Holt, R. H. (1954). Implications of some contemporary personality theories for Rorschach rationale. In: Developments in the Rorschach technique, Vol. 1, ed. B. Klopfer, M. D. Ainsworth, W. G. Klopfer, & R. H. Holt. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, pp.501-560.
Hertz, M. R. (1951). Current problems in Rorschach theory and technique. Journal of Projective Techniques, 15, 307-338.
Klopfer, B., Spiegelman, M. & Fox, J. (1956). The interpretation of children’s records. In: Developments in the Rorschach technique, Vol. 2: Field of application, Ed. B.
Klopfer. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, pp. 22-44.
Leichtman, M. (1996). The Rorschach: A developmental perspective. Hillsdale, NJ: The Analytic Press.
Lerner, P. (1991). Psychoanalytic theory and the Rorschach. Hillsdale, NJ: The Analytic Press.
Levin, M. M. (1953). The two tests in the Rorschach. Journal of Projective Techniques, 17, 471-475.
Lindzey, G. (1961). Projective techniques and cross cultural research. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
Mooney, B. (1962). Personality assessment and perception. In: Rorschach science: Reading in theory and method, ed. M. Hirt. New York: The Free Press of Glencoe, pp. 17-27.
Piotrowski, Z. A. (1950). A Rorschach compendium, rev. ed. Psychiatric Quarterly 24, 545-596.
Rapaport, D., Gill, M. & Schafer, R. (1966). Diagnostic psychological testing: Vol. 2. Chicago: Yearbook Publishers.
Rorschach, H. (1921), Psychodiagnostik. Bern: Ernest Bircher (Transl. Psychodiagnostics, 6th ed. New York: Grune & Stratton, 1964).
Schachtel, E. (1954). Subjective definitions of the Rorschach test situation and their effect on test performance. Psychiatry, 8, 419-448.
Schachtel, E. (1966). Experiential foundations of Rorschach’s test. New York: Basic Books.
Schafer, R. (1954). Psychoanalytic interpretation of Rorschach’s test. New York: Grune & Stratton.
Whipple, G. M. (1910). Manual of mental and physical tests. Baltimore, MD: Warwick & York.
Weiner, I. B. (1986). Assessing children and adolescents with the Rorschach. In: the assessment of child and adolescent personality. ed. H. M. Knoff. New York: Guilford, pp. 141-171.
Werner, H. & Kaplan, B. (1963). Symbol formation: An organismic-developmental approach to language and the expression of thought. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Zubin, J. (1956). The non-projective aspects of the Rorschach experiment: I. Introduction. Journal of Social Psychology, 44, 179-192.
Zubin, J., Eron, L. D. & Schumer, F. (1965). An experimental approach to the projective techniques. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Thank You – B. Ritzler
Martin Leichtman is a distinguished member of the Society for Personality Assessment. He has been a significant contributor to the field of personality assessment for many years. His association with the Menninger Clinic has kept him in touch with the psychoanalytic approach to assessment, but he has been a meaningful contributor to other approaches through the years, particularly in regard to the assessment of children. We appreciate his contribution to this Newsletter.
We wish to thank all of the contributors to our newsletters this year. We want to acknowledge the important contributions of Drs. Weiner, Kleiger, Choca, Rossini & Garside, and Brabender. We are grateful for their thoughtful and provocative articles related to Rorschach issues. We hope you have found these contributions to be significant and helpful additions to our newsletters.
Rorschach Training Programs continues its goal to develop the Newsletter as a useful tool for our readership which is now over 900 subscribers. Please let us know how we can be of additional service to those of you in the Rorschach community.
As we approach the holidays and a New Year we wish every success.