Rorschach Tests at the Nuremberg Trials

By Neuroskeptic | April 25, 2015 4:43 am

After the fall of Nazi Germany, the victorious Allies sought to bring the leaders of the Third Reich to justice in the form of the well-known Nuremberg Trials. Less famous are the attempts by  psychologists to understand the Nazi mind in the form of psychological evaluations of the Nuremberg defendants.

A new paper by Joel E. Dimsdale of the University of California San Diego looks at one of the stranger episodes in the aftermath of WW2 – the use of the Rorschach “Inkblot” Test on Nazi detainees.


Dimsdale notes that “The [Nuremberg] trial was not so much a ‘who done it’ as it was a ‘why did they do it.'” Everyone knew what the Nazis had been done, but what had driven these men to do these things? Was it mental illness? So interest in study of the Nazi’s psyches was intense among American psychiatrists and psychologists:

On June 11, 1945, a group of medical societies wrote to [the chief U.S. prosecutor at Nuremberg] Robert Jackson requesting urgently that the psychology of the war criminals be studied. The societies were remarkably diverse, including the American Association on Mental Deficiency, the American branch of the International League Against Epilepsy, the American Neurological Association, the American Psychiatric Association and the National Committee for Mental Hygiene…

These medical societies actually concluded their plea with a request that executed Nazis should be “shot in the chest, not the head”, so that their brains could be preserved for autopsy. On that point, they didn’t get their way – the method of execution at Nuremberg was hanging followed by cremation, precluding Nazi neuroscience autopsies. However, another of the psychologists’ requests was granted: the request that defendants should be examined using “psychological tests such as the Rorschach”.

A brilliant Army psychiatrist and Rorschach expert, Lt. Col. Douglas Kelley, led the interviews. He was aided by a young psychologist Gustave Gilbert, who acted as his assistant and translator. They embarked upon an intense program of interviews:

Kelley claimed to have spent 80 hours with each of the prisoners during his time at Nuremberg. Given the cramped quarters in the prison cells, Kelley and Gilbert… would conduct interviews sitting on each prisoner’s small cot with the prisoner sandwiched between them.

Both Kelley and Gilbert later wrote books about their experiences at Nuremberg but, Dimsdale says, the Rorschach’s role in the story has largely been forgotten, partly because the data wasn’t published at the time, and only surfaced in 1975.


Dimsdale then focuses on the responses to Rorschach Card 2 (see above.) Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring said of this card:

Two dancing men. A fantastic dance. Two men, here are their heads, their hands together, like whirling dervishes. Here are their bodies, their feet.

According to two Rorschach experts, Miale and Selzer, writing in 1975, the fact that Göring saw dancing figures in this inkblot pattern indicates a psychic pattern of “hypomanic defense” while the fact that he saw the men as having red hats “indicates an emotional preoccupation with status”. Hmm.

Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s former Deputy Führer, didn’t see dancing figures in Card 2 but rather described it as:

Microscopic cross-section, parts of an insect with blood spots… the leg of a fly with red blood spots; space in the middle is the marrow… A mask. Mask of an island savage… the opening is for the mouth… it is devilish, that is why the eyes and beard are red.

Miale and Selzer interpreted Hess’s as “the remnants of a violent, excitable, unrelated emotionality, which is still intense but is split off from contact with anything real.”

Disturbing – but what does all this mean? Were the experts just seeing what they expected to see, assuming that the Nazi’s responses were abnormal because they were Nazis? A 1976 study by Molly Harrower suggests so. She gave the Nuremberg transcripts to ten Rorschach experts, mixed up with Rorschach responses from some non-Nazis, including some Unitarian ministers. The records were anonymized (blinded) and the Rorschach experts were asked to work out which set of responses came from the war criminals. They proved unable to do this better than random chance.

Dimsdale concludes that the Rorschach probably added little if anything of value to the Nuremberg process, but he ends by saying that the desire to understand the mentality of crimes against humanity is a noble one:

It is regrettable that in contemporary War Crimes trials we see no continuation of the efforts at scientifically studying the perpetrator.

ResearchBlogging.orgDimsdale, J. (2015). Use of Rorschach tests at the Nuremberg war crimes trial: A forgotten chapter in history of medicine Journal of Psychosomatic Research DOI: 10.1016/j.jpsychores.2015.04.001

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  • Felonious Grammar

    I saw Athena Nike and a frog with a bow tie. Analyze that.

  • Weaver

    I’m with Goering, sort of. That’s two Santa Clauses high-fiving. Or maybe garden gnomes doing a minuet.

    I wonder which is more Nazi.

    • Neuroskeptic

      I’m with Göring too. It’s two guys with white skin, wearing black coats and red hats, dancing hand in hand (spinning around the centre line.)

      I can’t make sense of Hess’s interpretation.

      • blabla

        i don’t understand the insect thing, but i do see a man with a beard. the eyes are the two slits in the red “hats”, the nose in at the “high five”, the “men’s bodies” are the beard (or rather, i would have said, a gigantic mustache), and, citing Hess, “the opening is for the mouth” (the mouth is the void between spots). anyway, i’ll try and go easy with the war crimes in the future, i promise.

        i wonder how much of the differences in “what people see” is differences in accounting for “one thing” versus “two things” (how do you explain the symmetry), and/or integrating the spots versus background (i.e. only spots should be interpretable shapes, or not). those are probably cultural (a bit like the “parts versus whole” bias)?

  • Tbony Coates

    These are the extraordinary efforts that attempt to find simplistic causes of atrocities by looking in the neurophysiology or psychology of those who pulled the trigger.
    Maybe it is to avoid blame themselves, who knows?

    For example, war was waged agains Saddam Hussein for using chemical weapons against his own people.

    Guess who manufactured and supplied the Sarin he was supposed to have used?

    What goes on in the neurophysiology and psychology of those that manufacture the chemical weapons of mass destruction?

    The issue is surely cultural, political and ideological not psychological or neurobiological.

    It has to do with power and control.

    I reckon.

  • David Littleboy

    It’s interesting that the Rorschach test is no better than chance at differentiating ruthless killers from pacifists. Wiki reports that “some critics” feel the test to be pseudoscience, which sounds about right. I find it surprising that it isn’t widely recognized as being as completely batty, as it clearly is. Wiki goes on to say:

    “In 1992, the psychologist Stuart Sutherland argued that these artificial experiments are easier than the real-world use of the Rorschach, and hence they probably underestimated the errors that testers were susceptible to. He described the continuing popularity of the Rorschach after the Chapmans’ research as a “glaring example of irrationality among psychologists”.”

  • Felipe Cuadra

    The inkbolts are alive and well here in south america, as well as some escaped nazis.

  • Tom C

    Accounting for the spirit of the times might have been be more helpful.

    • Neuroskeptic

      That’s true. At the time the Rorschach was a respected test. Using it on the Nazis wasn’t seen as a crackpot idea, it was mainstream psychology.

      • JD

        Agree with this comment. At the time, it was the standard.

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  • Keln

    Looks like two bears wearing santa claus hats and beards giving each other a high-five to me.


      I saw two men giving each other high-fives.

  • Fielding Bandolier

    If one were to assume that blind adherence to an ideology like Nazism is narcissistic, then it would be difficult to discriminate between Nazis and any other people of a patriotic (or analogous) persuasion. The failure in the interpretation is the failure to recognize the many, many ways in which Nazis are just like those who opposed them on the battlefield, and their leaders who were capable of knowingly sending them to die. The Rorschach is better used as an idiographic tool, rather than nomothetic, but it is not without utility.

  • RejNej

    I was trained with the Rorschach in graduate school (in the mid to late 90’s) using the Exner system of scoring (increases reliability!). It was taught to clinical psychologists as a valid tool of our “science” at the time. Now it is well out of favor. How quickly the fads and fashions fade – now we would want to “fMRI” them to determine what “brain mechanisms” made them do such deeds, hmmm…

  • Phillip Shurtleff

    I suggest the book “The Self Beyond Itself” by Heidi Ravven. It’s a fairly indepth discussion of the willingness to support the Holocaust and more recent events like the Colombine shooting.There’s good info out there like the work of Milgram and Zimbardo but since they don’t satisfy the political motives that dominate the media and activists, they are largely ignored. There is quite a bit of research on such mass cruelty and violence so the claim otherwise isn’t true.

  • Alan Hubbard

    Interesting story, but a futile attempt to understand that which is not understandable, even to the Nazis. I doubt that they could articulate why they did the horrible deeds they did. The world will just have to be satisfied with knowing that they were all bat sh*t crazy.

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  • Tom C

    Freudian scientism…focus on the symptoms rather than the disease.

  • Nacho Sanguinetti

    I actually also see two men with red hats and white beards joining their hands (kind of two dwarfs). So, I guess that is something I have in common with Goering.

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  • ofix

    You need to read milgram’s work who demonstrates how much it is normal to do stupid and dangereous things. Harendt explained it too but was no a scientist.

  • glenn duffy

    This is not terribly scientific but there is another reason for much of the Nazi behavior. First, a feared adult in our family physically abused 3 of us, almost
    non-stop for 10 years, my sister 12 years. Her abuse unfortunately was not simply beatings. Attempting clarity I read every book available to me including the DSMV. That door stop had a rather thick section on this adult’s behavior. To me it was just more nonsense and maybe a reason for the writers to use $50.00 words. These very ill people do what they do because they enjoy it. I actually found a hand written script to be used at a future encounter. The Nazis obviously ramped up the horror but again, they liked it. Who cares why, the majority of these depraved individuals are never brought to account for what they did. Sadly, our ability to identify and stop them before they harm others is no better today than it was 50 years ago. One hopes that research will someday give us the proper tools to deal with them.

    • PaulMurrayCbr

      “These very ill people do what they do because they enjoy it.”
      Likewise the preposterous attempts to find out why bullies bully, and the absurd conclusion that they do it because they feel threatened, or frightened.
      Bullies bully because it feels good, and because no-one had ever imposed on them a countervailing bad feel for doing it..

  • smut clyde

    I was going to say I saw a duckie and a horsie, but I changed my mind

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  • Margarita Romanova

    you can take a free version of Rorschach test online

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  • Joel Schwartz

    I am a Rorschach expert. I can’t be too detailed because it is unethical to give away trade secrets. But by modern standards, the whirling dancers IS indicative of hypomania (regular dancers is not – it is a very healthy response). And Hess’s response includes elements of trauma, emotional dysregulation, aggressive tendencies, mild thinking probelms, and mild psychopathy. This is based on good science. There was a recent meta-analysis on Rorschach scoring and interpretation, which led to some functional changes that have resulted in reliability and validity on par with most medical and psychological tests.



No brain. No gain.

About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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