The Beautiful Yet Twisted History of Psychological Testing

The early part of the 1900s saw a huge expansion in experimental diagnostic tests. A new book called “Psychobook” compiles them in a beautiful collection. It will be available on Amazon, and published by the Princeton Architectural Press.

Most of the tests are ancient like relics, cast aside as understanding of the mind deepened. Univ. of Kansas psychologist, Jonathan Templin says “The concept of personality disorder is permanently under revision.” He’s part of a think tank called the Achievement and Assessment Institute. Today, it’s hard to believe that homosexuality was onced classified as a mental disorder by the American Psychological Association, even last as 1987 (maybe even in your lifetime). In those days, they acdtually ahd tests that look for that “disorder”, which is astouunding by todays “any thing” goes, and “accept everybody” standards.

Other tests had similar issues. The Szondi Test, developed in 1935, required subjects to examine photos of people hospitalized for mental disorders (such as epilepsy, homosexuality, and depression) and choose their favorite and least favorite images. Psychologists used those choices to root out a patient’s impulses. Choose a portrait of a known maniac, and—surprise!—you were diagnosed as one. No big surprise here; it didnt take long for experts to roundly discredit the test. Beyond enforcing a range of prejudices, the test was illogical, because saying you like a rapists face does not make you are actually a rapist. But at the time, the Szondi test was a sophisticated tool that made use of photography, a still-emerging technology that seemingly allowed doctors to approach their work with new found precision.

The most enduring tests in the book are those designed to be open-ended. One called “The Feeling Test” asks patients to identify with one of several blob-like cartoon characters that might be alone, or coupled, or sedentary, or emotive. Theres little trickery involved, because the characters look more like friendly ghosts than people, making them neutral proxies for various emotions. It can help spur conversation, which is why therapists still use it.

We are almost more familiar with the ink blot, or “The Rorschach Test”. It was created by Hermann Rorschach, who created 10 abstract inkblots back in 1921, published them in a book, and died the following year. I wonder if he designed them, or just did random ink splatters? Or did he do 100, and pick 10 that were strategically linked to his principles of analysis. The answer will be revealed shortly…

In a study published this summer, 53.6 percent of psychologists reported using these tests. They are very designed, says Joni Mihura, a University of Toledo clinical psychologist who has spent years studying and updating the ink blot test. By designed, she means deliberate: Rorschach, was indeed an artist, and he hand-painted his inkblots, striving to create the greatest possible possibilities for interpretation in each picture. If you ever try to make an inkblot, its a just splat. Other inkblots arent that evocative. The complexity of Rorschach’s inkblots encourage more interaction during psychoanalysis with a trained facilitator or therapist. They also bring forth discussions that the patient might otherwise hold back.

The most significant changes to psychological tests have been in how doctors interpret what’s gleaned from patients. Mihura spent seven years conducting meta-analyses to better understand how the behavioral norms used to evaluate Rorschach test results should be updated for modern use. Likewise, Templin points out that because of information trees and statistical models, tests taken through a computer can adapt to the user. Answer one question a certain way, and an algorithm can predict which question should come next. In this way, technology continues to inform this unusual corner of design. The technology of the Rorschach is art,” Templin says. “Now we can design a computer program. A stringof one’s and zero’s isn’t nearly so beautiful as a watercolor abstract. But it sure beats the Szondi Test.

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