The Relationship Between Hunger Levels and Perception as Seen in Interpretations of the Rorschach Test

Written at Walt Whitman High School

By Gwendolyn Arbetman, Alicia Lamkin, Isabela McDonald


In 1921, Hermann Rorshach created his infamous Inkblot Test for the sole purpose of testing personality types and mental function. Five examples of colored ambiguous images taken from Rorschach’s inkblot test were presented in an optional questionnaire given to students at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Maryland. 102 students, in grades ninth through twelfth participated in the survey. Initially, it was hypothesized that if the hunger levels of the participants were higher - based off of their responses to the questions regarding hunger - they would be more likely to interpret the ambiguous images as food or food-related. Hunger was operationally defined on a scale from 1-5 (five being the most hungry), as well as asking the amount of time since the participant has eaten. However, after analyzing the data, we failed to reject the null hypothesis that the correlation between hunger levels and the interpretation of the ambiguous images as food existed without attribution of sampling error. Our results concluded that no significant correlation exists between hunger levels and the interpretation of ambiguous images as food.


Hermann Rorshach initially used the Inkblot test for his patients with schizophrenia--a mental illness classified by hallucinations, disorganized speech, and extreme paranoia. However, Rorschach tests today are used by psychiatrists and psychologists for much broader purposes. For example, the Rorschach Inkblot tests are used to delve deeper into an individual’s unconscious thoughts that may be beyond their awareness. These thoughts can be revealed through the different interpretations of the ambiguous images (Clay 2006). The original Rorschach test is made of 10 inkblots images: 5 contain colored ink and 5 are black and white (Weiss 2002). The psychologist or psychiatrist administering the test asks the participant to describe what they see in each Inkblot, and later the psychologist or psychiatrist interprets the responses.

Research conducted by Rita Baltus found that when interpreting ambiguous images, participants use a perceptual set: focusing on some aspect of the images while ignoring others. The ability of humans to perceive ambiguous images is an evolutionary trait that is essential to survival. Physiological needs such as hunger and thirst, the surrounding environment, rewards or punishments associated with certain responses, gender, and expectations all played a unique role in how the participants perceived each ambiguous image (Baltus 2000; Scocchia, Valsecchi, and Triesch 2014).

Very little research has been conducted regarding the relationship between hunger levels and the interpretation of ambiguous images. However, historically there have been a few researchers who aimed to discover more about the relationship. In 1936, R. N. Sanford with Harvard University deprived participants for different lengths of time and performed Inkblot tests (Sanford). Similar research was conducted by the Indian Journal of Psychology, which aimed to find any differences in personality by examining the interpretation of ambiguous images, between that of drug-addicts and non-drug addicts (Tung, N. S., Chhabra, N., & Chatha 2010). However, this study failed to prove any notable differences between the interpretations. Given the lack of research on this topic, we aimed to further investigate the correlation between the two.



Students at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Maryland were offered the option to participate in a questionnaire. The students ranged from grades ninth to twelfth, with students aging generally 14 to 18 years old. A total of 102 students participated in the study. The male to female ratio was skewed heavily female, with 90 female participants and 12 male participants. The majority of the participants were seniors in high school: 52.9% Seniors, 20.6% Juniors, 16.7% Sophomores, and 9.8% Freshmen. The study was optional, and the participants were not offered a reward for completing the questionnaire.


The questionnaire was given through a Google Form. Each of the questions were given in the form of multiple choice. Five colored Inkblot images were taken from the original Rorschach Inkblot test.


This correlational study intended to discover if a relationship exists between hunger and cognition that can be revealed through responses to the Rorschach Inkblot tests. The optional Google Forms survey was administered through an online link that was posted to social media on both Facebook and Instagram. It was also presented to the Advanced Placement Psychology Classes. The only requirement for participants taking the survey was that they were students of Walt Whitman High School. There were no constraints placed on where, when, or the time from when they last consumed food to complete the study. The survey contained preliminary questions regarding gender, grade, hunger level, and the last time that they ate. The central part of the survey contained inkblot images with the multiple choice options of seeing an animal (mammal or otherwise), a fantasy creature (mermaid, dragon, etc), a human(s), a human body part (skeletal, organ, etc), a fruit or vegetable (any), and an animal or human eating. All questions regarding either hunger levels or time of consumption were intentionally placed after the inkblot images as not to prime the participant and affect the results.


After analyzing the results, it was found that there is a 0.1169 correlation between the amount of time passed since eating, and the interpretation of the Inkblot images as either food or human/animal eating food. An increase in the self-rated hunger scale of one is associated with a 3.2 percentage point increase in the probability of the respondent answering any question with fruit or vegetable, or animal/human eating. However, the p-value is 0.24. We fail to reject the null hypothesis that the true relationship is non-existent. Our results display that there is some degree of correlation between hunger levels and interpretation of ambiguous images as there was a positive correlation. However, we had fewer participants than we had hoped. Seeing that the p-value is a function of the amount of subjects involved in the study, our p-value would likely have decreased if we had over 200 participants.


Although the results we received showed a positive correlation between our hypothesis: the longer a person went without eating, the more likely they would be to interpret the ambiguous Rorschach Inkblot images as food, the correlation is not statistically significant. Certain factors like the environment and the sample size may help improve the statistical significance of this study if carried out in the future. The sample size of this study was 102 people and not representative of the school, nor the population as a whole. The participants were 88.2% female and only 11.8% male. The majority of the participants were seniors: 52.9% Seniors, 20.6% Juniors, 16.7% Sophomores, and 9.8% Freshmen. Although neither the skewed gender nor grade level was intentional, it likely had an impact on the validity of our results. The environment was uncontrolled, and the participants were allowed to take the survey on their own time. As a result, their hunger levels were unmonitored.

Although studies regarding the relationship between hunger and the interpretation of ambiguous images have not been conducted recently, R. N. Sanford in 1936, as described in the introduction, conducted research regarding the two variables. Sanford’s experiment found a relationship between hunger levels and the interpretation of ambiguous images (Sanford). Hunger was operationally defined by responses to two questions: how much time has passed since eating, and by rating their hunger levels on a scale of 1-5. The responses the participants had could have been impacted based on how aware or unaware they were of their hunger. The data we received was strictly based off of the participants' recollection of when they last ate, so the results could also be changed or improved if there was a way to solidify the last time they truly ate food before looking at the images. With consideration of ethical concerns, a future study might include a controlled setting to eliminate confounding variables.

The correlational study yielded a slightly positive correlation, but was unable to prove our hypothesis that the longer a person goes without eating, the more likely they will be to interpret ambiguous images as food. The extraneous variables encountered in this study prohibited us from concluding any correlation.


Balcetis, E., and Dunning, D. (2006). See what you want to see: motivational influences on visual perception. J.Pers. Soc. Psychol. 91:612. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.91.4.612

Baltus R. (2000). Personal Psychology for Life and Work (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2000), 27–29

Clay, R. A. (2006, January). Assessing assessment. Monitor on Psychology, 37(1).

Long G. M., Olszweski A. D. (1999). To reverse or not to reverse: when is an ambiguous figure not ambiguous? Am. J. Psychol. 112, 41–7110.2307/1423624

Tung, N. S., Chhabra, N., & Chatha, H. (2010). A comparative study of addicts and non drug addicts using Rorschach protocols. Indian Journal of Community Psychology, 6(1), 45–53.

Sanford, R. N. (1936). The effects of abstinence from food upon imaginal processes: a preliminary experiment. The Journal of Psychology: Interdisciplinary and Applied, 2, 129–136.

Scocchia L, Valsecchi M and Triesch J (2014). Top-down influences on ambiguous perception: the role of stable and transient states of the observer. Front. Hum. Neurosci. 8:979. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2014.00979

Weiss, A. (2002). Potential Uses of the Rorschach in the Selection of Police Officers. Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology, 17(2), 63-70


Students at WWHS Questionnaire

For the inkblot images: select all that apply. Please note that if you see an option ANYWHERE in the image, select that option.

Responses are anonymous

What is your assigned sex at birth?

What grade are you in?

What do you see?

What do you see?

What do you see?

What do you see?

What do you see?

Rate your hunger on a scale of 1 (not hungry) - 5 (most hungry)

When was the last time you ate?