Blog: Perspectives on mental health services

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Myth: Psychological tests take an X-ray of your unconscious mind

We live in an age of not just X-rays, but CT scans, PET scans and MRIs.  We’re able to see the human brain with greater clarity than ever before, and we’ve come to view these techniques as standard medical practice.  In contrast, the notion that someone could see not just into our brain but into our mind remains deeply disconcerting, and understandably so.  What if a psychologist could discern our personal thoughts, fears and urges?  What if they could get a sense of our most embarrassing memories or fantasies?

Therapy itself inspires such anxieties, but I suspect that psychological testing is even more unsettling in this regard.  These tests remain shrouded in mystery, but this is coupled with the distinct suggestion that they get at something deeper, something we cannot hide.  The idea that such tests could reveal our deepest secrets, wishes and fears, even those we cannot see ourselves, is disconcerting indeed.  Here, I’d like to cut through some of this mythology:  not to explain all of the mechanics of how the tests work, but to provide a sense of what they can tell us, why that might be valuable, and why it isn’t mind reading.

This myth has many historical roots.  For one, psychological testing has enjoyed—arguably reveled in—considerable mystique over the years.  Even IQ testing, which in the end is just one measure of cognitive ability, retains an aura of revealing pure intellectual prowess.  People are often surprised to learn that educational opportunity measurably improves IQ scores, as if IQ was getting at something ineffable, not a set of abilities subject to learning and development.  Likewise, pencil-and-paper personality measures can feel uncomfortably revealing, like they’re unearthing something hidden, essential and otherwise unknowable.  Thus, people often worry what the test will “say” about them.  But when it comes to an X-ray of your unconscious mind, the scariest test of all is the Rorschach, the famous—or infamous—inkblot test.  The process of interpreting responses to inkblots remains opaque and mysterious for all but those few with specific training on the test.

The Rorschach and other psychological tests can tell us a good deal about you, but not in the way the myths suggest.  IQ tests are reliable measures of consequential cognitive abilities, and hence do a decent job of predicting performance across a variety of life spheres.  Self-report personality measures—by organizing your responses into meaningful dimensions and using statistical techniques to compare these to normative samples—can help us see aspects of your personality you may not have previously recognized.  Even the Rorschach, as opaque as it seems, is simply an attempt to get a direct sample of how you make sense of the world.  But none of this is about reading your mind.

When it comes to examining the X-ray myth, the Rorschach is the most compelling test to explore: here, a question that cuts across all of these tests—what do my answers “mean?”—seems most pressing.  What could psychologists be looking for in perceptions of inkblots?  Before I had an opportunity to learn about the Rorschach, I imagined someone searching through responses for various unconscious symbols.  A rocket means this, a purse means that, and so forth.  This is unsettling in its own right, because it suggests that our perceptions have hidden meanings that we’re unaware of.  It’s also unsettling because it feels like this process could go anywhere:  a creative psychologist could come up with all kinds of hidden meanings, and how could we argue?  This perception has been reinforced in the popular media’s take on psychology at large: think Hitchcock’s “Spellbound,” or the “meaning” of the ducks in the pool in Tony’s dream in season one of The Sopranos.

Sometimes meaningful symbols do emerge in a Rorschach administration, but the test is not a scavenger hunt for such “signs.”  Rather, the goal is to understand how you perceive things, filtered through your cognitive, emotional and personality style.  Consider two hypothetical responses to the same inkblot:  one person says, “A bat,” while another says, “A bat.  Oooo, it’s scary.  It’s got big white fangs and it looks like it’s flying right at me.”  The basic content—a bat—is identical, but you don’t need to be a psychologist to see that these responses are quite different.  The challenge is to make sense of how they’re different, and that’s what the Rorschach attempts to do.  Perhaps the first person, who gave an easy but obvious response, is somewhat guarded, or possibly takes a “just the facts, ma’am” type of approach to life.  The second person’s response is more detailed and imaginative, but also sounds a little reactive and excitable, possibly even childlike.  The differences in these responses reflect not just unconscious ideas, but perception, cognition, emotional regulation, impression management, personality and so forth.

In general, psychological tests don’t so much strive to reveal the hidden contents of your mind, but something more valuable: a snapshot of your mind in action.  This is actually much more illuminating and clinically useful than a map of your unconscious would be.  Primitive unconscious hopes and fears are intriguing, but they’re not as revealing as you might imagine.  It turns out that most of us are actually quite similar at the level of our basic fears and strivings.  With the exception of psychopaths—who do appear to be wired differently—most of us want to love and be loved.  Most of us struggle with frustration, anger and aggression.  Most of us want to experience success, and be respected by our peers.  This is true even of the most seriously disturbed schizophrenics I’ve worked with.  So what ends up being more helpful is to elucidate how we pursue our hopes and desires, and how we get in our own way in doing so.  Our strivings and fears themselves are just the starting point.

Psychological tests can be quite revealing, but not because they allow us to read your mind.  Psychologists are not psychics, and the tests are not parlor tricks.  They can shed light on how you look at things, how you make sense of things, and how you deal with internal worries and external challenges.  They can tell us about your biases and preconceptions, both about the world and about yourself.  Of course, this can be intimidating as well, because it is sometimes difficult to see these things ourselves.  But the goal is to see you, not see through you.  And the larger goal, as always, is to help you see yourself.