When Art Meets Psychological Testing

When Art Meets Psychological Testing

This article was inspired by recent comments from Dr. Tali Shenfield, who advocates the use of art in psychological testing and therapy, especially for young children.


Regardless of the reasons given, art when used as a psychological assessment tool can become a slippery slope. Why? Because art in and of itself is considered to be a form of aesthetics representing human creativity. This function is entirely different from those functions associated with psychological studies, i.e., the study of thought and intent.

This common view holds that a particular work of art, whether done by the hand of an adult or a child, is a form of communications between the artist and the viewer. This is true regardless of age or gender. Whether the work of a young child (5 – 11 years of age) or an adult when creating art there is something being communicated. This has raised a question; is art a valid area for psychological inquiry? We will take a stab at trying to answer this question in this article.

When writing here about art we are not referring to the works of the masters. Rather, our reference point is those drawings flowing from our own mind. Even more specifically, we will explore the use of two psychological testing methods, the Rorschach test and Projective Drawings.

Most are familiar with the Rorschach test. The second one, projective drawings is less well known. Its primary use is as a psychological test for young children, although it does have some value when used with adults. With projective drawings, participants are assigned an artistic task. Once completed the art then serves to drive mental health treatment.

For the moment, let’s focus on the young child. By now, most of us have seen on a television show, in a film, or some other popular medium that the art work of the young child carries with it a message. No-one thing has been more influential than those shows that depict crimes against children. Does this sound familiar?

Two seasoned detectives sit at their desks in the squad room. They are partners investigating the assault of a six-year-old girl named Sarah.

As though he was thinking about something in particular Scotty looks up from his case notes, “You know Jake, I just can’t get little Sarah’s case out of my mind.”

Grumbling at the interruption to his reading of the sports page Jake mumbles a, “Yeah, me too.” Response.

Pushing for more from Jake, Scotty continues, “So what do you think, were Sarah’s injuries caused by a parent or someone else?”

“Don’t know!” replied Jake as he tried to finish the newspaper story.

Pulling a sheet of paper out of the file and handing it to Jake, Scotty asks his partner, “Me either, but there is something, I just don’t know what but something about this drawing Sarah did that can answer that question.”

Of course, the camera then scans over the child’s drawing. It is a crude, maybe even a bit abstract, but an age appropriate stick person drawing of an adult and a child fighting with each other. There are large drops of blood around the child. All that’s left for the two cops to do is to have a social worker interview Sarah to find out who are the people in the drawing and what has happened. Case closed!

The media makes it look easy, yet it isn’t. Why? What more could be needed to solve this crime? Let’s see if we can figure this out.

Modus Operandi

More legalese: modus operandi, or the method of operation of certain activities done in a specific way. The importance of the modus operandi here is that it provides a behind the curtain look at the world of a young child’s communication through their art. There is an assumption that children, particularly those between 5 and 11 years of age “communicate” outwardly their inner world through their drawings. Just as notable are those within the field of psychology who debunk this view, stating that a child’s drawing is nothing more than what it is, a drawing.

Why is this important?

As illustrated earlier, there is a commonly held belief that in certain situations, a child’s drawing may take on a hidden meaning. Decipher the meaning and you receive the message. If true, there is any number of mysteries to be solved. Likewise, usually due to trauma, there are instances where an adult cannot articulate deeply protected secrets. This is where psychological testing and therapy come to help.

The use of art with children and adults as a form of therapy has attached to it the hypothesis that communications is the use of symbolism to convey a message. Or, are we placing more importance on what can best be called a gray area? What is the importance of symbolism in communications? Whether spoken or written if words can be found, or even through some other medium, like art this remains an important question that will be addressed shortly.

We need to examine if any balance exists between art, the creative process, and psychology, a pragmatic process that relies on a more scientific approach. It all began with the introduction in 1921 of the Rorschach test. With its introduction art entered into the domain of psychological testing and into the world of psychology.

A few decades later came what today is called projective drawings, which is a part of many projective tests. Projective drawing assessments include Draw a Man, Draw a Person House-Tree-Person, Draw a Family, and the House-Tree-Person, and Chromatic House-Tree-Person. While widely used to test children and adolescents,  projective drawings are viewed by many in psychology as having nothing to do with art or aesthetics, but rather with thought and expression.

The work of Dr. Hermann Rorschach focused on developing a battery of so-called ink blots. They consist of 10 drawings, and the evaluation of the test is then conducted in a two-step process. The use of this test has evolved over time and today remains a popular choice among many psychologists in measuring human responses in areas like schizophrenia and personality disorders.

This psychological test is most often evaluated based upon the details identified within the content observed, rather than on the content itself. In other words, it is more important to understand how various parts of an ink blot work together to inform ones view rather than providing nothing more than an impression of what is seen. In what way, if any, does this differ from traditional art expression? This is where the rub lies. Where does art begin and end? At what point does art become a science that is represented by the formation of our judgment and tastes?

A clear goal of mental health treatment is to effect change in human responses and behaviors. One approach to this is the use of cognitive dissonance. This is the presence in your mind of two seemingly opposite views. As an example, it can be argued that meaningful art is based on the totality of a work. Let’s say, a work by the impressionist Monet. Famous for his depiction of greenery, to some Monet’s work is tediously boring with what appears to be the same pattern distributed throughout a painting. And, when viewed in totality this may seem fair to say.

Yet, on the other hand, there are those who can also argue that to simply judge a Monet by an initial glance is unfair. His genius lies in the details of his work. Thus, cognitive dissonance. How does this brief analysis aide us in understanding the proper place of art in the mind of a child? Let’s return to Sarah.

The Link between Art and Mental Health

Keep in mind that our focus in this discussion is the validity of using art as a tool in the mental health bag of tricks. It is a bag already full of proven and accepted approaches. To hold on to art as science to be used in mental health is not without its own conflicts.

The appreciation, expression, and practice of any art form are a part of all of us. More clearly defined in some rather than all, nevertheless, it is present. Seldom will you find a home that doesn’t have some form of art in it. Even just a child’s school drawing, hanging on the refrigerator counts as art.

With the 100th anniversary of the initial version of Rorschach test fast approaching combined with an ever increasing acceptance of projective drawing in courtrooms, law offices, and child welfare offices around the country this issue seems more cogent than ever before.

Let’s not forget Sarah, the victim of a crime. Those investigating her case turn not to the appreciation of art, but to the science of psychology to find clues. In doing so, they also are reinforcing an acceptance of Rorschach’s work. They believe that there is a “message” contained in Sarah’s drawing depicting what happened to her. If they are correct, they have solved a crime. If incorrect, not only have they not solved a crime, but they may very well accuse an innocent person of a crime.

This begs the question, is there a role for psychology in trying to understand what, if any message can be found in art? This is an ongoing debate. There are strong advocates in support of the use of the Rorschach and projected drawing as a valid mental health tool. Of equal volume are the voices of those who reject any notion of the validity of this approach in mental health.

What we are presented with then are two views of the use of non-verbal human communications in mental health treatment. This raises an additional question: the accuracy of interpreting non-verbal meaning.

Recently, in what seems like a parallel situation, significant questions are being raised about the validity of some forms of DNA testing. Having become a respected, trusted, and accurate measurement, today DNA evidence has come under increased question. Not about its value, but about its application in so many different situations. The current argument is that we may have overreached in our rush to accept DNA findings.

Is there a connection between the use of art as a psychological tool in the view of concerns regarding DNA? Is art therapy a legitimate approach in today’s world of psychology? A world that now has the tools it needs to aid in non-verbal communications used to fill in the blanks when the patient can’t articulate a response. Or, as some argue is its use simply psychological babble? Despite the continued use of art in therapy the jury is still out.

An Answer

We cannot expect the science of psychology to resolve this question anytime soon. It is in the very nature of science to study and contribute to a field rather than to dismiss it out of hand. As you may be able to tell currently there’s no clear answer to our question. Until there is a satisfactory answer the call of many within psychology is to establish parameters around the use of art as science.

The very real challenge facing the application of art as science seems to lie in the responsible and judicious use of this approach. The establishment of guidelines that ensure that there is no rush to judgments or devaluing of artistic expression. Some examples would include:

The demonstrated support of a secondary intervention in confirming the findings of any art therapy interpretation.

Nationwide standardization, certification, accreditation, or some other means of establishing an evaluators credentials to administer such tests.

Additional independent supporting evidence of the findings of any art therapy testing.

The stipulation that the views presented are interpretations of the meaning and may or may not accurately describe events.

While we should avoid throwing the baby out with the bath water, it is important to place art as a psychological tool as a gateway to the answers, not the answers in and of themselves. When used in an appropriate way art therapy brings its own set of information to the issue being dealt with. Used ad-hoc, art therapy holds a grip on the truth that while what is uncovered may be accurate it is not necessarily true.