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Surprising Science

Can you cheat on a test with no right answers? Yes, say some psychologists, and they’re in a fit about it.

The source of the controversy in the psychology community this week is the Rorschach Test. You may not recognize that name, but you’ve seen parts of the test before: they’re those inkblots psychologists hold up and then ask you what you see in them. The ten inkblot images been around since the Swiss man Hermann Rorschach first published them in the early 1920s, but now psychologists fear that the test could be brought down by a decidedly 21st century foe: Wikipedia. 


Canadian doctor James Heilman published the 10 Rorschach slides on Wikipedia, along with the most common answers that people give for each one. And then psychologists erupted into a fury, saying that publishing the answer key on the Internet would render the test unusable for patients who’ve seen it. Sure, they say, they could invent new inkblots, but they’ve been using these 10 for decades and have a vast repository of data built around them. The Wiki itself is currently under lockdown to prevent editing until the dispute is resolved.

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But if you’re one of those who doubts the clinical authority of inkblots, never fear—some psychologists are with you. A research team just published a new study in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest that says psychologists need to be wary of how much weight they place on the results of Rorschach tests. The tests have been shown to connect to disorders like schizophrenia and bipolarity, but show not significant connection to revealing some other serious disorders. In the early days of Rorschach testing, the researchers say, the main concern was with improper or inconsistent administration of the test. That’s been mainly dealt with, they say, but there’s a big question remaining over whether the test gives short shrift to non-whites because they might have a different cultural perspective. 

I can’t help but applaud the research team’s conclusion, that firsthand interviews with patients and empirical evidence should take precedence over tests like the Rorschach. It might useful in a few cases, but 21st century science shouldn’t have to rely on somebody’s interpretation of abstract art as a window to their mental state.


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