Projective Tests: Exploring The Psyche

Updated November 30, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

If you’ve seen a psychologist show their client inkblots in a TV show or movie, or even participated in an inkblot test yourself, you’re already familiar with projective tests. Projective tests are meant to evaluate the associations a participant makes with various types of stimuli to uncover information about that individual's personality. The stimulus can be an image, a sentence, or another ambiguous prompt meant to evoke a response. While projective tests are not as commonly used as they once were, they are still administered by many mental health professionals as a way of understanding an individual’s personality. Below, we’re going to discuss projective tests, their various forms, and how they’re used to uncover useful information.

What Are Projective Tests?

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Projective tests are a form of examination meant to provide insight into an individual’s personality, behavior, and feelings through associations with different images, tableaus, words, or other stimuli. These tests are largely the product of psychoanalysis, which seeks to uncover unconscious desires and feelings. Projective tests are so named because the individual is thought to be projecting different aspects of their unconscious through their answers. 

The Testing Process

The overall goal of projective tests is to give mental health professionals insight into the individual’s psyche through their responses to ambiguous stimuli. For example, in a Rorschach test, the professional may ask the individual to describe what they see in an inkblot. Based on the participant’s response, the way they formulate their answer, and other factors, the administrator can make certain assessments. Projective tests don’t always include a response to an image—they may also ask an individual to respond to a word, fill in a blank in a sentence, or draw something themselves. 

The Role Of The Unconscious Mind

According to the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, our unconscious mind impacts our behaviors, thoughts, and feelings. Freud believed that our everyday lives are in large part dictated by our unconscious, which we are unable to evaluate ourselves. According to the principles of psychoanalysis, understanding how our conscious and unconscious minds relate can help us address mental health concerns. 

The use of projective tests is one way therapists and other professionals see the unconscious to better understand the individual. For instance, someone who struggles in their interpersonal relationships may take a projective test and learn that an underlying event from their childhood is influencing their present interactions. Once this connection with their unconscious has been identified, the individual can then work through their feelings about the past and improve their relationships in the present. 

Types Of Projective Tests

Projective tests can take several forms, each of which may provide unique insights into different aspects of an individual’s personality. The following are common types of projective tests.

Rorschach 

Also known as the inkblot test, the Rorschach is one of the most well-known projective tests. It is typically administered by showing an individual a series of inkblots and asking them to describe what they see. The administration of the inkblot test is standardized, but numerous variations have been created to help evaluate the responses. Generally, the person administering the test will look at the content of the response, the demeanor of the respondent, and several other factors to uncover more about their personality. 

Sentence Completion Test (SCT)

Sentence completion tests usually ask the participant to finish a stem (typically a declarative sentence) with words that they believe best represent their beliefs. For example, a stem could be: “Going to work makes me____”. Most sentence completion tests have several stems that the participant will finish. The different ways the respondent completes the sentences are thought to be indicative of various aspects of their personality. Sentence completion tests are used not only in psychology but in a variety of other settings, including market research, career counseling, and human resources. 

Draw-A-Person

Often used to evaluate children, the draw-a-person test is thought to provide insights into several different facets of personality and has even been used to assess intelligence, though its validity in that regard has been questioned. Typically, respondents are asked to draw three different people—themselves, a woman, and a man. These drawings are then evaluated by a professional, who will look for various details that may reveal the individual’s attitude and motivations.

Thematic Apperception Test (TAT)

The idea behind the thematic apperception test (TAT) is that a respondent’s storytelling process can uncover information about their personality, in addition to beliefs and conflicts they have regarding social situations. Typically, the test’s administrator asks the respondent to describe an ambiguous scene (usually a social interaction) depicted on a card. The respondent is often asked to tell a full story about the lead-up to this scene, what the characters are feeling and thinking, and how the scene resolves. By examining the respondent’s description of the tableau, a professional may be able to better understand what drives them, how they feel, and what personality conflicts they may experience. 

House-Tree-Person (HTP)

Similar to the draw-a-person test, the house-tree-person test asks the participant to draw figures, this time a house, a tree, and a person. Once the exercise is complete, the administrator will ask a series of questions (e.g., “Who lives in the house?”; “What kind of tree is that?”) that help provide additional insights into the individual’s personality. 

Advantages 

Because projective tests are considered more subjective, answers are thought to be indicative of how an individual truly feels, as opposed to how they believe they should feel. For example, when answering a multiple-choice question about their emotions, a respondent may be more inclined to choose an answer based on its social acceptability. The ambiguity of stimuli in projective tests makes it harder for respondents to craft their answer based on similar desires. 

Projective tests can be especially helpful when working with children, who sometimes have trouble answering direct questions. A projective test can make a child feel more comfortable by allowing them to draw or answer with less structured, more open-ended responses. 

Disadvantages 

Projective tests came into use in the first half of the 20th century, but they started to fall out of favor in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Much of this decrease in popularity was due to research showing that the tests lacked validity. Researchers have found the tests to be too subjective and lacking in evidence that supports their utility. For example, one study found very few versions of thematic apperceptions tests, Rorschach tests, and drawing tests that were backed by scientific evidence. 

One of the most notable cons is that projective tests can be influenced by the environment or even by the administrator’s demeanor. Another drawback associated with projective tests pertains to their evaluation. Due to how ambiguous the images and subsequent responses from patients are, the therapist can misinterpret an answer. 

Applications Outside Of Psychology

Projective tests are not only used by mental health professionals but anyone who wants to understand the associations people make with different stimuli. They are often used in marketing to find out respondents’ views toward certain products and services. Market research focus groups often administer word association tests or sentence completion tests that provide insight into the attitudes of potential buyers. These tests are also becoming common tools for human resources departments. Career seekers who undergo projective tests are often asked to tell stories based on common workplace situations. While an objective test may lead to responses that don’t reflect a person’s true attitudes, the open-ended nature of projective tests could give hiring managers a more accurate idea of a potential hire’s personality.

There is a growing amount of evidence pointing to online therapy as a helpful method of care for mental health concerns identified through psychological testing. In a broad-based review of 92 studies on online therapy, researchers concluded that it was as effective as in-person therapy, mentioning cognitive behavioral therapy, specifically, as a beneficial modality. Cognitive behavioral therapy helps individuals reframe unwanted thought patterns, such as negative or intrusive beliefs that may be revealed by a projective test.

An online therapy platform like BetterHelp can connect you with valuable tools and support as you navigate your psyche. Working with a licensed online therapist, you can learn more about your thoughts, motivations, and behaviors from the comfort of home, through video call, voice call, or in-app messaging. You’ll also be able to reach out to your therapist outside of sessions. If you want to clarify a point made during therapy or ask a psychology-related question, you can send your mental health professional a message, and they’ll get back to you when they’re able. 

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Takeaway 

While projective tests are not used as frequently as they once were, they can still help us understand the sources of our behavior, thoughts, and feelings. If want to learn more about your personality and motivations, or you want to address other mental health-related concerns, consider reaching out to a licensed therapist online. Connecting with a qualified mental health professional can be the first step toward a better understanding of your mind and improved mental health.   

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