I belong to a group of professionals known as clinical psychologists. I practiced for about 25 years and then retired from patient care 9 years ago. My current day job (not to mention my avocation as a poetry editor) still has a great deal to do with human psychology and behavior, but I stowed away my IQ testing kits and Rorschach cards in 2006. No regrets, as it turns out.
My wife recently sent me a link to a website article about psychotherapy. The text of the article isn’t my subject for This Note. It’s the pictures.
The article was illustrated with miniature versions of the ten Rorschach inkblots. Many don’t know that psychologists don’t make their own inkblots. The Rorschach consists of 10 specific inkblots that have been around since 1921 or so. Even years after the Rorschach cards were made publicly available—after a legal fight that ultimately put them in the public domain—it still shocks me to see them outside a clinical consulting room. They were closely guarded by my tiny segment of the population authorized to own and use the Deck of Ten. Even now, I can’t bring myself to post a picture of any of the genuine cards here, even though, if you are interested, you won’t have any trouble finding them online. (There are online inblot personality tests. Of course there are. There are online tests that will tell you which character on Gilligan's Island you are.)
I never was, though, much of a Rorschacher.I just never believed it. And, honestly, the kinds of questions that might be answered by the Rorschach might be better answered by simply asking people questions. In the last several years, it seems to me, the test has declined in popularity among clinicians.
Given vague stimuli, what people see is largely determined by their psychological predispositions. This is widely known. But, I have bad news to break to you. Given specific and unambiguous stimuli, what people see is still largely determined by their psychological predispositions. Everything we see, hear and remember is shaped by who we are, what we experience, and what we have experienced. We’re making internal movie productions. We edit, focus on some details and ignore others. We all change and spin the actual events to suit us. It’s sometimes conscious, sometimes not. We’re filmmakers, but we are not cameras. Not even close.
I was reminded of this recently by a family conversation. All of us remember an event which consisted of one of our daughters getting a big mouthful of spoiled milk in a restaurant and then, in the course of spitting it out, atomizing the bad milk in a huge aerial cloud that then misted down on the food of everyone sitting at the table. The interesting thing is, two of our three daughters remember themselves as the Fermented Milk Weaponizer. (I know who is right. Or, at least I think I do.)
This inability to be objective in what we see and remember is not trivial. A cornerstone of the criminal justice system is made up of eyewitness accounts. Courts love ‘em. Psychologists, as a group, know that they are highly unreliable. (Courts also love confessions, which are often false. Whole other story.) Putting aside people who are motivated to lie and do lie, even people who are attempting to be honest get things wrong when they witness crimes. Often really wrong. This sends some people to prison and, in extreme cases, into the death chambers.
This is the point where I would like to make a turn and tie this to some contemporary issue. You have come to expect this kind of profundity from me. I really can’t, except to say that politicians are politickin’ and people are hearing what they want to hear. This is not exactly a newsflash, though, and if you are a halfway decent person, you should be furious at me for taking you this far to make such an obvious point. So, instead, I’ll just summarize this The Note by saying Rorschach cards, in public domain, now all over the web, never liked the test much anyway, people are in prison because of lousy eyewitness accounts and, finally, spoiled milk is sometimes served in family restaurants. And, then, really finally, I hope to have a better idea for The Note next month.
Here's issue 90. Our thanks, as always to all contributors and all submitters. Thanks to my hard-working co-editors, F. John Sharp, Laura M Kaminski and F. J. Bergmann.