September/October Newsletter


Identity Facets as a Lens for Rorschach interpretation

Guest Contributor, Virginia Brabender

In assessing a client with the Rorschach or any other personality tool, we are never assessing the generic client. Indeed, the premise of Rorschach assessment is that individuals possess personality traits and areas of dynamic concern that individually and interaction with one another shape experiences and behavior. Whether it is comfort with intimate relationships, capacity to appreciate reality as others do, ability to control impulses, or capacity to take initiative in solving problems, assessors know that the variability among human beings on these dimensions is great, and the variability makes a difference in fully understanding the individual client in a way that would enable us to plan interventions. Although personality assessors give great attention to personality features as a means of capturing individuality, an area of relative neglect is the set of multiple facets that constitute each person’s identity.

What are these facets? In the last 15 years, social psychologists and social-clinical psychologists have increased focused on identity. An example of a model that captures the multi-dimensional aspects of identity is that of Pamela Hays (2008). According to Hayes, those identity-based sectors of the self that have been shown to be most influential in affecting experiences and behaviors are summarized in the ADDRESSING acronym with ‘A’ corresponding to Age and Generational influences; DD to Developmental and Acquired Disability, R, Religion and Spiritual Orientation; I, Indigenous Heritage, N, National Origin; and finally G, Gender. If these domains broadly influence how a person sees the world and him or herself in it, then we would expect these factors to reveal themselves in some fashion as a client is participating in the Rorschach task.

Yet, whether these areas have high, moderate, or minimal effects on the processes engaged by the Rorschach test is known for some areas, dimly, and others, not at all. Probably that identity facet that has been given greatest focus in Rorschach research is gender. Early in the development of the Comprehensive System, separate statistics were collected for male and female samples in an effort to ascertain whether men and women differed in systematic ways on the structural variables. In general, differences were exceedingly modest, and the prevailing conclusion was that gender was not all that important in Rorschach interpretation. Subsequently, studies were undertaken to consider race and nationality. For example, Meyer (2002) undertook a study to see if the Rorschach was biased against minority groups relative to European American vis-à-vis the prediction of psychotic disorders. He did find some evidence of bias but it was in the direction of increased diagnosis rates of European American individuals. Presley, Smith, Hilsenroth, and Exner (2001) compared 44 White Americans and 44 African Americans and found fairly minimal with only one of 23 structural variables reflecting a difference. Such a pattern suggested that the Rorschach is legitimately employed with White Americans and African Americans alike. This, though, was not the finding that was of greatest interest to me. The one variable that did reveal of difference was in a lower number of cooperative responses for African Americans. The authors interpreted this finding as reflecting the lived experience of racial minorities-contending with discrimination and stigma might give rise to a weaker expectation that human interactions will be cooperative. This interpretation considers not only the personality of the client but also, the personality of the environment, in dynamic interaction with the person. What I think is so important about this study, and other studies of its ilk, is its demonstration of the utility of the Rorschach in highlighting the lived experiences of a client in a way that can be linked back to that person’s identity status. In a sense, an individual’s identity status serves as a context for the interpretation of Rorschach variables in a way that allows us to think about the person in even greater particularity than were we to consider the individual independently of that person’s gender, gender identity, nationality, race, and so on.

What we need is a greater fund of research on all important identity facets, including those that are relatively under-researched such as gender identity (an individual’s self-perceived gender), sexual orientation, religion and spiritual, and so on. However, even before research accrues, we can, in our analysis of individual Rorschach protocols, pay greater heed to a person’s identity status. An example of such sensitivity to identity is seen in the case of Blair presented by Bullock and Wood in a chapter in a book I recently co-edited with Joni Mihura titled Handbook of Gender and Sexuality in Psychological Assessment. Blair was a 39-year old Latina transwoman who was pursuing a psychological assessment in the context of an evaluation for participation in bariatric surgery. Out of her 24 responses, Blair produced instances of combinative thinking on 9 of them. The investigator was surprised at this finding given that there were no instances of thought pathology either in the assessment interview or in her sessions with the therapist. The authors argue that given her status as a transwoman, the customary interpretation that she has a thought disorder is not the only possibility. They point out that Blair’s proclivity to engage in combinative thinking might be rooted in the complexity of her gender experience-that is, experiencing the incongruity between her assigned gender and her experienced gender. For example, Blair sees on Card I a two-headed person and incorporates shading into the clarification of the response. The authors ask, “Does this illustrate her unconscious sense of her own multiple layers of duality or that she is in the process of changing not just her physical body in terms of sex but also with the pending bariatric surgery?” (p. 501) What Bullock and Wood are not doing is suggesting that the usual interpretation of the combinative thinking instances fails to apply because the participant is a transwoman. Instead, what they are saying is that this interpretation must exist alongside other interpretations that have their roots in the client’s identity status. It is reasonable to believe that one’s experiences as a transwoman provide her with a unique sense of how elements and objects relate to one another, a sense that might well different from that of the cisgendered person (i.e., the person whose assigned gender matches his or her felt gender). Along the lines of such a hypothesis, combinative thinking reveals not thought pathology but one’s identity and the experiences accompanying it. Bullock and Wood go on to suggest still another hypothesis-the notion that this unusual thinking is emerging specifically in relation to the anxieties stimulated by Blair’s sexual minority status as well as the specter of the bariatric surgery. Bullock and Wood go on to consider how the assessor might use all of the data generated in the assessment to garner support for one or more of these hypotheses. They also develop the implications of combinative thinking for Blair’s everyday experience as a transwoman, “…while this type of thinking could be viewed as a strength as it has greatly contributed to her adjustment as she has transitioned from seeing herself as a man to seeing herself as a woman, it is also a source of psychological pain in that it causes her greater loneliness because she feels that others do not understand her.” (p. 503).

In this past year, psychological assessment lost Richard Dana, its most passionate spokesperson for diversity awareness, that is, our collective responsibility to consider all aspects of identity as we pursue our assessment activities. Through not only our research but also our careful exploration of identity facets of our assessment clients, we can at long last make progress on his vision for a more inclusive, comprehensive, diversity-sensitive form of psychological assessment.

Bullock, W., & Wood, N. (2016). Psychological assessment with trans people. In V. Brabender and J. Mihura (Eds.) Handbook of gender and sexuality in psychological assessment. (pp. 489-510). New York, NY: Routledge.

Hays, P. (2008). Addressing cultural complexities in practice: Assessment, diagnosis, and therapy (2nd. Edition). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Meyer, G. J. (2002). Exploring possible ethnic differences and bias in the Rorschach Comprehensive System. Journal of Personality Assessment,78(1), 104-129.

Presley, G., Smith, C., Hilsenroth, M., & Exner, J. (2001). Clinical utility of the Rorschach with African Americans. Journal of Personality Assessment, 77(3), 491-507.


In August, Dr. Ritzler attended the two-day business meeting of the Comprehensive System International Rorschach Association (CSIRA) at Nanterre University in Paris. The meeting was chaired by Dr. Anne Andronikoff, the president of the association. Psychologists from several countries attended the meeting-Italy, Denmark, France, Great Britain, Belgium, and the United States.

At the meeting, several research projects were presented from Italy, Denmark, and France. Anna Maria Rosso from Italy presented her research that indicated the clinical usefulness of the Comprehensive System. Kim Hansen from Denmark presented his work on a marker of human sensitivity based on the human movement response. Patrick Fontan, from France, presented a study critiquing R-PAS and his dissertation which statistically analyzed the Comprehensive System using a large number of protocols to yield ten clinically meaningful components.
A portion of the meeting was used to plan the Comprehensive System symposium to be submitted for the United States Society for Personality Assessment meeting in March, 2017 in San Francisco.
Finally, the meeting organized a series of presentations to be made at the International Rorschach Congress to be held in Paris in the summer of 2017. In addition to several clinical presentations, the series will feature Dr. Fontan’s critique of R-PAS. This conference is being co-sponsored by CSIRA and will be held July 17-21, 2017 at “Les Cordeliers” in the Latin Quarter of Paris. Online registration opens October 1, 2016. Submissions for symposia and posters will open December 1, 2016.