A Truly Biased TED Talk: The Bad Debunking of 10 Alleged Myths about Psychology

A few days ago I watched a TED Talk called “10 Myths about Psychology, Debunked”, by Ben Ambridge, and although it’s less than 15 minutes long, I had to split it into two viewing sessions because the first 3 minutes were such a load of false and random information, that I needed a break to process what I just witnessed under the label of “Education”.

When I finally got to see the whole …show… I was also sure that I wanted to write about the flaws of his presentation, and because going through everything that was wrong would result in a pretty lengthy article, I decided to only talk about one of the myths he allegedly debunked, the Rorschach test.

Here is the TED Talk. Sorry for making you lose 15 minutes of your life on this, but it’s good for us to be able to sort out junk from essence and I think this video is a great example of the first.

Sensationalism can definitely bring a good share of Likes, Followers and Viewers, but is it necessary to go down that path of saying almost anything in order to catch attention?

In less than 1.5 minutes, Ambridge’s presentation reveals a serious number of errors in assessing the Rorschach Inkblot Test. I will post them in a very structured and brief manner, for two reasons: I only want to convey the essential information, a long, profession-specific material is not fit for a blog post, but rather a  professional publication or book and I will also try to protect information that could interfere with future Rorschach assessments of anyone reading this.

* I have specialized in Rorschach Inkblot Testing in 2010. I’ve started my two-year training in Rorschach in 2008. The test can only be used by licensed psychologists and psychiatrists (perhaps even other professional branches, by country), but only after attending a proper training program and only using the original Rorschach Plates (only one publisher world wide: Verlag Hans Huber, Hogrefe AG).

So, let’s take a look at several of the things that are so wrong in this TED Talk. *Here’s also the English Transcript of the talk..

1. Ben Ambridge is not a Rorschach specialist.

I tried to search a little bit of professional information about the speaker, but other than finding out he’s a Reader in Psychology at the University of Liverpool, authored a book and mainly co-authored several papers, I could not find anything that would mean he has any clinical experience in the field of psychology. He’s not a clinical psychologist, he’s not a therapist, he’s not a counselor, from what I saw.

Rorschach is a projective test, meaning its basis regards the psychodynamic theory of the psyche, mainly the existence and functions of the unconscious mind. Projection is such a psychological phenomenon which, in this case, allows the assessed person to give meaning to the inkblots based on their life experiences and unique psychological traits.

Now, not being familiar with the psychodynamic approach of the psyche renders you illiterate in reference to any projective test.

2. Rorschach interpretation is never about singular answers.

When we do a Rorschach interpretation, we give an interpretation of the whole: answers, behaviors, auxiliary words, construction of answer etc. Ambridge treats Rorschach like the ever so popular dream dictionaries: One word/Answer – One meaning. It’s never like that for a specialist.

Ambridge lists among the sources of his talk J. E. Exner’s “The Rorschach, A Comprehensive System”, Volume 1, that I believe he never read at all. If he would have actually read it ( a quite tedious task for a person not really interested in the Rorschach – lengthy, abundance of terms, abundance of scores, abundance of numbers and tables, etc), he would’ve at least find the following of Exner’s recommendations: “The first prerequisite is that the interpreter have an understanding of the nature of the test and the complex  operations involved in forming and selecting responses. Once the responses are coded or scored, compiled sequentially, and used as a basis for numerous calculations, three interrelated data sets will exist. They consist of: (1) the verbiage used by the person when giving answers or responding to questions raised by the examiner, (2) the sequence in which the responses have occured as reflected in both the substance of answers and the coding of them, and (3) the structural plot of frequencies for the coded variables from which the data for the numerous variables, ratios, percentages, and indices are derived. Collectively, these three data sets form the interpretive substance of the test.” (Chapter 13, General Guidelines Regarding Interpretation).

I haven’t seen Ambridge doing any writing, calculus, no indices… and yet, he provided the crowd with interpretations: “Okay, so if you think they’re saying hello or high-fiving, then that means you’re a friendly person. If you think they’re fighting, you’re a bit more of a nasty, aggressive person. Are you a lover or a fighter, basically”.

This is not the case in a genuine Rorschach interpretation. Ambridge, however, only taps the superficial surface of the subject and ends up with a very wrong conclusion. Singular answers do provide information about the person being tested, but conclusions (and especially clinical conclusions regarding diagnosis) only emerge after considering the assessment context and content as a whole.

3. Derived from 2. Rorschach interpretations are not only content based.

We assess several things regarding a Rorschach answer, not only the obvious content. Ambridge provides only one basis for interpretation: (apparently) psychoanalytical. No psychometry considered by the speaker, and we do use psychometric data in order to improve the validity of the interpretation. It’s the standardized part of the Rorschach. Ambridge never mentions is. Still the dream dictionary approach.

Wonder if he knows that there are significant differences between the alternative answers he conveys to the audience. I dunno, two bears (1) or two people (2) or something(3).” These are not the same type of answers. They are at least three, and the “I dunno” may count too. The “or” means something too. Just to give you an example of what goes on in the mind of a Rorschach evaluator.  Definitely had nothing to do with Ambridge’s approach.

We also never induce answers (or at least are very careful not to). So, I do understand that he had a certain amount of time for his talk, but still, someone who would be familiar with the Rorschach would still try to keep away from inducing even the slightest answer or nuance to the person being assessed. So, no alternatives from us (unless it’s a special part of the test, used by some schools of interpretation) and no questions like “But what do you think they’re doing?” – the question implies that the characters have an active attitude, they do something.

4. Psychologists would never present the original Rorschach plates.

Professionals in the field, Rorschach specialists or not, usually understand the need to keep assessment material out of the public eye, because that would compromise future test results. This is a complex subject, but for the purpose of this article, just knowing that psychological tests should be protected in order to preserve their validity for as many individuals as possible, can be considered sufficient.

5. Ambridge doesn’t even know the basic answers or answer types for Rorschach.

Regarding the second plate he displays in his talk, he says:

What about this one? This isn’t really a voting one, so on three everyone shout out what you see. One, two, three. (Audience shouting) I heard hamster. Who said hamster? That was very worrying. A guy there said hamster. Well, you should see some kind of two-legged animal here, and then the mirror image of them there. If you didn’t, then this means that you have difficulty processing complex situations where there’s a lot going on.

Three errors just here:

a. Crowd said “Tiger” and well, “Hamster”… they are not two-legged animals.

b. Just for failing to give those answers, the evaluator would not conclude in the way Ambridge states. Those are not the criteria we consider for saying that the person being tested has “difficulty processing complex situations where there’s a lot going on.

c. For a true Rorschach specialist, “Hamster” wouldn’t be worrying at all.

He then continues: “Except, of course, it doesn’t mean that at all.

And here we agree.

6. Ambridge claims that “modern-day psychologists” do not use Rorschach, which is false.

Rorschach inkblot tests have basically no validity when it comes to diagnosing people’s personality and are not used by modern-day psychologists.

There are two mistakes in the previous statement, but I’ll address them separately.

So, Ambridge fails to even properly consider or understand the very sources he said he based this segment of his talk on.

*From Scott O. Lilienfeld et al., “The scientific status of projective techniques,” Psychological Science in the Public Interest, November 2000, first sentence of the Abstract: “Although projective techniques continue to be widely used in clinical and forensic settings, their scientific status remains highly controversial.”

* From Thomas W. Shaffer et al., “Current nonpatient data for the Rorschach, WAIS-R and MMPI-2,” Journal of Personality Assessment, 1999, first sentence of the Abstract, again: “A literature review yields a surprisingly small number of nonpatient studies focusing on three widely used assessment tools: the WAIS-R, Rorschach, and MMPI-2.”

* From James M. Wood et al., “The Rorschach Inkblot Test, Fortune Tellers and Cold Reading, Skeptical Inquirer, August 2003, first sentence and second sentence in the (somewhat) third short paragraph: “Famous clinical psychologists used the Rorschach Inkblot Test to arrive at incredible insights.”; “From 1950 to the present, most psychologists in clinical practice have treasured the test as one of their most precious tools.”

Need I say more? He only cites four sources for this Rorschach segment, three of which are supposed to be his “fellow debunkers”. And in those three materials, in the very beginning lays the information that Rorschach is alive and kicking in many psychology offices.

And now, really… if he couldn’t quite get through and understand the first few phrases of the materials that allegedly support his claims, I reiterate my doubt of him ever actually reading Exner (or Rorschach himself).

*The previous alleged debunkers have also been debunked themselves, so, basing your bad work on somebody else’s bad work doesn’t quite seem like a smart choice.

7. Clinical diagnosis is NEVER the result of assessments with only one test/instrument/tool.

The first part of the previous sentence and the continuation “In fact, one recent study found that when you do try to diagnose people’s personalities using Rorschach inkblot tests, schizophrenia was diagnosed in about one sixth of apparently perfectly normal participants.”, show once again that there is no clinical understanding of psychology involved in this TED Talk.

Any clinical psychologist, any psychotherapist and any psychiatrist would most probably tell you that we do not write down a diagnoses based on a single assessment tool. So, although there is such thing as “Rorschach diagnosis”, meaning that that is the specific result from this particular assessment segment, no one will ever get (from a well trained psychologist or psychiatrist) a definitive clinical diagnosis unless several tests have been used and direct interviews with the individual were also conducted.

So, if someone actually said a person is affected by schizophrenia based on Rorschach only and not state that this is the partial result of Rorschach and needs to be corroborated by other results, that professional was not quite… professional. We corroborate data and come to a conclusion, not just throw diagnoses on paper and in the lives of our clients or patients.

8. Rorschach is not a visual or artistic ability test.

Ambridge: “So if you didn’t do that well on this, maybe you are not a very visual type of person.”

Again, a 2 in 1 kind of error structure.

First of all, there is no right or wrong result to a Personality test. You are who you are. Rorschach is not only a personality test, but personality traits and emotional aspects do come out as main results in this type of testing. However, what Rorschach is not is a visual ability test. No visual ability tested. Perception, yes.

This is one of the first things a future Rorschach specialist learns and one of the things included in the brief instructions we offer to the tested person, in order to relieve some of the pre-assessment anxiety. This, together with the fact that the test should not be considered an artistic abilities test.

So, a lot happened in less than 1.5 minutes, right? Saying things fast and with a cocksure attitude does not mean you’re accurate…or even close to stating the truth about a topic.

Quite a TED miss for this particular event.

P.S. It is more than OK to critically assess basically anything. I do not mind critical opinions of the Rorschach or anything else, as long as they are informed. Psychologists are aware of the limitations of projective tests and use them carefully. We also hope for more research data that will help us assess the validity of these tests. If proved they are not valid, I strongly believe our scientific side would make us take a step back from using them, but that is not the case now. In what regards Ben Ambridge, I wish him all the best, but strongly hope that if this is the way he understands psychology and science, he will remain a one hit wonder.

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5 Comments

  1. Reply
    Ric January 17, 2017

    Projective tests / methods such as inkblots are very unreliable and should not be used in a court of law as has been expressed by numerous experts. There are many peer reviewed papers which have stated this conclusion, and overall about major problems in using projective tests.

    • Reply
      Lucia Grosaru January 17, 2017

      Nor is the polygraph test admissible in court. But that was not the point. Projective methods are relevant in clinical contexts if used correctly.

  2. Reply
    Paul October 15, 2016

    Can you explain what u said with simply words, because I dont know very well english.
    But I would like to know what did u say basically.

    Thank you.

  3. Reply
    Frank January 31, 2016

    Thank you for this article. I have a undergraduate degree in Psychology and the Ted talk did not align with what I was taught. I immediately began asking myself where are his citations and research?

    • Reply
      Lucia Grosaru January 31, 2016

      Thank you, Frank, for your visit and feedback. Glad to know others picked up on the biased message of this talk.

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