Three remarks about inkblots

Tue 19 Dec 2006 02:16 AM

Last week I was thinking about Rorschach tests, the inkblot tests that psychologists once used as diagnostic tools. A subject is shown an inkblot and asked to say what they see. Their response is supposed to indicate something about them. From what I can tell, psychologists no longer think there is any diagnostic value in Rorschach responses. A brief web search turns up psychologists who dismiss the test as nothing more than a parlor game.

Although the Rorschach "what do you see?" protocol could be performed with other ambiguous visual stimuli, it would not work with stimuli in other modalities. Imagine playing a sound and asking the subject to say what they hear.

I think that an aural Rorschach test would not be terribly interesting, but why not? One difference is that visual stimuli are distributed in space. If I see a person lying down, I can point: Here is the head, here is one arm, and so on. However, I am not sure whether this is the reason that Rorschach pictures work and Rorschach audio would not.

[UPDATE: At the APA Eastern, Casey O'Callaghan claimed that it would be possible to make sounds that were as evocative as inkblot pictures. Perhaps he is right, but we were unable to produce any clear examples. If possible, it is much harder than making evocative visual stimuli.]

Whatever the explanation, the difference is even clearer for other modalities. Imagine an olfactory Rorschach test: "Close your eyes and tell me what you smell."

Or a gustatory Rorschach test: "Open your mouth. Good. Now, tell me what you taste." It is grist for the Freudian mill if the subject sees a phallus in an ambiguous inkblot. Standard diagnostic inkblots had splodges that could be seen as male or female bits, if the subject was inclined to see such things. But would even the most perverted Freudian expect subjects to taste genitalia in an ambiguous gustatory stimulus?


Coincidentally, a couple of nights ago I ended up playing the game Thinkblots. In the game, each player looks at an inkblot and tries to identify as many objects in it as they can. After the timer runs out, players explain each of the items they've written down. Whether or not an identification counts is decided by a majority of the other players. (For example, my attempt to claim a circular blob as a 'gumball' was not accepted.) A player scores two points for each identification that they alone made and one point for each identification that was also made by another player.

There is a little more to the rules, but these details are sufficient background for two observations.

First, game design: Thinkblots relies on a certain gentility among the players. When one player points at part of the tableaux and says that it is the face of an otter, unsympathetic opponents may plausibly scoff, deny that the smudge is any such thing, and vote against the would-be otter face scoring any points. The rules give cut-thoat, competitive players an incentive to be dismissive in this way, but it would make the game no fun at all.

Second, phenomenology: There is a striking difference between the identifications that work and those that don't. For example, in one of the rounds there was a splodge that I had described as a person holding a child. Someone else described it as a couple dancing. Both answers were deemed acceptable. Then another player claimed to have identified a sidewalk and pointed to that same splodge. It totally worked, and the two figures in silhouette was suddenly a sidewalk retreating into the distance.

The two points are interrelated; although I could have said that it was nothing like a sidewalk to deny him the two points, the phenomenological fact is that it did look like a sidewalk. Yay for gestalts!