Thursday, January 28, 2010

A Rorschach Test

When I was (briefly) a graduate student at Columbia University's Teachers College, in the fall of 1971, I took a course in film. My professor had a favorite aphorism—"Every act of communication is a Rorschach test." To illustrate the phenomenon, he used a then newly-released film, Millhouse: A White Comedy, a documentary about President Nixon's political career from 1946 through his election as President in 1968 (the title is based on Nixon's middle name, Milhous). People who hated Nixon, my professor said, thought the film presented a brilliant satiric expose of the President's foibles, while those who liked and supported Nixon felt that it showcased the President's greatness.

In a Rorschach test, the subject finds in neutral inkblots those images that reflect his or her personality and beliefs. In reacting to various types of communication, my professor believed that, as with the Rorschach, people find what they're predisposed to find. This view leads to the rather bleak conclusion that it's extremely difficult, if not impossible, to change people's minds by a single act of communication. Case in point—last night's State of the Union address.

If you read the "reviews" of the speech in today's papers, bearing my professor's aphorism in mind, it's almost comical to see the reactions of various individuals. Everything divides along party and ideological lines. In The New Republic, Jonathan Chait opines that "Obama effectively projected his personality, often to the detriment of the opposition," and concludes that "[s]temming the Democratic panic was the primary task of this speech. We’ll soon see if it succeeded. I’d bet that it did." Fred Barnes, of The Weekly Standard, begs to differ. He writes that "Obama delivered the least fresh State of the Union address I’ve ever heard . . . filled with old ideas, campaign cliches, and frequent use of [the] personal pronoun, 'I.'"

To be fair, some reviews and editorials were more nuanced. People do try to be objective. But can they actually succeed? I have no wish to weigh in here with my own take on the speech. But, though I try mightily to be fair and to listen to politicians with an open mind, I suspect I'm as likely as anyone to let my political and personal biases affect my reaction. Still, over the years, my awareness of the Rorschach effect has at least made me conscious of the danger and caused me to struggle against it. Seemingly, awareness of bias is the first step toward overcoming it. Let's hope.


  1. I, too, listened to the speech, then watched with great curiosity and amazement the diverse reactions. I will admit that I am not a good judge of these things. First because I have some strangely anarchistic tendencies for one sprouting from a red-necked logging community. Plus I have this dark belief that politicians are one of the greatest banes of mankind. I guess it's been too many years of listening to the promises that are never kept. Bonnie

  2. I like the joke about the patient who saw all kinds of sexual images in the Rorschach test. The psychologist pointed out "you seem to have sex on your mind." The patient exclaimed, "Me? You are the one you made the test!"

    Obama seemed to me wounded, pretending not to be wounded, trying for comeback, and knowing that if it doesn't work, he doesn't have a lot of chances left. But what else could he do or be at this point? I think he underestimated the difficulty of getting the other side to become an ally.

  3. I always struggle with my biases when listening to a politician's speech. I find it difficult to be objective. Ditto with reading Opinion pieces. We like to have our view points reinforced. This would explain why some folks swear by the WSJ editorials and others, the NYT.