Inkblots and Projective Techniques: The Psychology of Pretty Pictures

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Inkblots and Projective Techniques: The Psychology of Pretty Pictures

If subjects describe any of the Rorschach inkblots as an inkblot this is regarded as a defensive response. (P. Kline, 1993)

In short there is no single, inevitable meaning attached to a given response; all things are relative and interpretation requires considerable training and experience. (E.J. Phares, 1984)

One of the most consistent criticisms of those using interviews or questionnaires to get information about others is that they cannot rather than will not tell you the answer to certain questions. What really motivates you? How aggressive or altruistic are you? How much do you enjoy power? What effect did your childhood have on you? It is not that they won’t tell you the answer to these questions but rather that they do not have the insight, or language, to answer honestly.

There are various types of projective technique.

1 Inkblot or abstract pictures: These can be constructed very simply by dropping a large ’blob’ of wet ink on the middle of a page, folding it in half and then looking at the resultant pattern. There are versions of this famous test devised by a Swiss psychologist. The most well-known are ten separate cards of symmetrical inkblots half coloured, half monochrome. The tester gives the person one card at a time and asks them to say what they see. This is repeated. Testers note what is said, how long the subject spends looking at each card, which way up they hold it, etc. There are different expert systems to score this test but the idea is to do a diagnosis or paint a profile of the real individual.

2 Sentence Completion: You complete the following ’I wished I had never…’, ’My greatest fear is…’, ’I am rather proud about…’. Perhaps the most famous test in this is the ’I am…’ So you can say ’I am 22 years old,’ ’I am a Muslim,’ ’I am rather bored,’ ’I am deeply ambitious.’ The idea is to analyse the themes in the responses.

3 Free Drawings: People, often children, who are less inhibited by adults are asked to draw people or objects they are familiar with. The idea is that the size, attitude and expression of the people reveals the person’s real attitude to them. In one test people are given numerous pieces of plastic shapes and they are asked to do a collage. The colours (blue and black indicates depression) and the shapes are interpreted.

4 Objects: People are asked to play with or manoeuvre objects that may have special or personal meanings.


This is perhaps the most well-known and widely used projective test. It is also known as the picture interpretation technique because it uses a series of around 20 provocative yet ambiguous pictures which a person uses in order to tell a story. The pictures look very dated now and some are famous.

The person is asked to tell as dramatic a story as they can for each picture presented, in turn, including answers to the following questions: what has led up to the event shown?; what is happening at the moment?; what are the characters feeling and thinking?; what is the outcome of the story?

The answers are transcribed and coded for themes about the need for affiliation, need for power, need for achievement, etc.

The first picture is a little boy looking at a violin. But what is your story? An unhappy little boy forced to go to violin lessons by a tyrannical mother when he would rather be playing conkers? A sad little deaf boy knowing he will never hear the sweet music of the violin? A triumphant little boy who has mastered a tune before his peers?

Then the next picture and so on. All are obviously from another era, and many rather beautiful. None are racy, but number 13 is most interesting. A woman (possibly naked) lies on a bed/sofa shrouded by a see-through curtain; a fully dressed man peers out of the window. What is your version of events? Tell your story, which will be very carefully content-analysed by an expert.

There are many well-rehearsed objections to the use of these tests on scientific grounds:

First, they are unreliable because different experts or scorers come up with quite different interpretations of the data. Some suggest that if well trained in the Rorschach Inkblots or the McClelland TAT, different experts will give ’more or less’ the same answer. If the testers cannot agree on the meanings/interpretation we cannot assume test reliability.

Second, they are invalid because the scores do not predict anything. This is perhaps the most devastating criticism, though of course it has been objected to. However, it is probably true to say that there are not many good studies which have linked projective test-derived data with important real world behaviours like success at work, health, etc. In short, the criticism is that they don’t measure what they say they are measuring.

Third, context makes all the difference. The mood of the person, the characteristics of the tester, the setting of the test all affects results which suggests they are picking up on trivial rather than essential, underlying factors. In other words, a person given the same test on two different occasions can yield surprising and dramatically different results. This means they are measuring mood states rather than anything profound.

Fourth, the testers can’t agree on what the tests measure: attitudes, abilities, defences, motivation, deep desires. By measuring everything they may measure nothing.

So why do these tests still get used? Is it lazy journalists, charlatan psychologists or naive managers that use these (discredited) tests? Why are they still used despite limitations?

1 They provide often unique and intriguing data relatively easily that cannot be obtained as cheaply, quickly and easily elsewhere.

2 Skilled and trained practitioners sometimes seem able to obtain impressive, reliable and insightful findings which they can’t get from other tests or interviews.

3 The richness of the data makes other test data often look crude, colourless and constipated.

4 They can complement and confirm other findings and ideas.

So after nearly 100 years some psychologists still use the inkblots to try to understand personality.


Hertz, M. R. (1986). ’Rorschach bound: A 50-Year Memoir’. Journal of Personality Assessment. 50 (3): 396—416.

Imuta, K. (2013). ’Drawing a Close to the Use of Human Figure Drawings as a Projective Measure of Intelligence’. PLoS One. 8 (3): e58991.

Verma, S. K. (2000). ’Some Popular Misconceptions about Inkblot Techniques’. Journal of Projective Psychology & Mental Health. 7, 71—3.