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B. F. Skinner vs. the Rorschach Test

Neuroskeptic iconNeuroskeptic
By Neuroskeptic
Jun 30, 2012 2:25 AMNov 5, 2019 12:16 AM


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What happened when the world's most no-nonsense psychologist took a Rorschach test?

A fun little paper reports on B. F. Skinner's Rorschach results. He agreed to be tested as part of a 1953 project psychoanalysing various eminent scientists. The scientists were anonymous at the time but now Norwegians Cato Grønnerød et al have dug them out of the archives (Skinner has been dead since 1990).

Skinner was the world's leading exponent of behaviourism, a school of thought that held roughly that [strike]it's impossible to know anything about "inner" mental states or thoughts, and that they might not even exist, so all we could do was look at and try to predict behaviour [/strike]

(edit: see comments for clarification).

It was never an especially convincing idea to be honest and behaviourism is now pretty much dead although many of the techniques pioneered by Skinner live on in the form of tests on lab animals to determine the addictiveness of drugs and so forth.

But in the mid-20th century it was very popular and Skinner was a well-known figure, the Jonah Lehrer of his day in many ways although rather more controversial.

Anyway. Grønnerød et al report that when Skinner was asked to describe those famous inkblots -

The most evident feature of the protocol is the huge number of responses, showing a highly productive and creative person. But complexity is sacrificed for quantity... No perceptual distortions are evident, and reality testing and ability to function neutrally are in place. We found no signs of cognitive distortions, although some responses have an idiosyncratic twist... He might be an assertive person with a tendency to view relations as generally competitive and an area for the expression of his own needs, rather than an area of mutual support and belonging.

Although he shows an interest in others, the balance between real and whole humans and other human representation suggests that perception of self and others is based more on fantasies and wishes than on real-life perceptions... “Necrotic looking,” “wounded animal,” and “sheep pushing the two wolves away” might reflect projected aggression. These processes point to more primitive defense mechanisms...

Which is exactly the kind of speculation that Skinner spent his career trying to put a stop to. Still, it's an interesting paper, although I think it tells you more about the Rorschach than about Skinner.

Grønnerød C, Overskeid G, and Hartmann E (2012). Under Skinner's Skin: Gauging a Behaviorist From His Rorschach Protocol. Journal of personality assessment PMID: 22731841

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