How a Projective Test Is Used to Measure Personality

A person's responses are thought to reflect unconscious feelings

Inkblot projective test
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A projective test is a type of personality test in which you offer responses to ambiguous scenes, words, or images. A person's responses to a projective test are thought to reflect hidden conflicts or emotions, with the hope that these issues can then be addressed through psychotherapy or other appropriate treatments.

History of the Projective Test

This type of test emerged from the psychoanalytic school of thought, which suggested that people have unconscious thoughts or urges. Projective tests are intended to uncover feelings, desires, and conflicts that are hidden from conscious awareness.

By interpreting responses to ambiguous cues, psychoanalysts hope to uncover unconscious feelings that might be causing problems in a person's life.

Training in projective testing in psychology graduate settings has rapidly declined over the past decade or so. Despite the controversy over their use, projective tests remain quite popular and are extensively used in both clinical and forensic settings.

At least one projective test was noted as one of the top five tests used in practice for 50% of 28 worldwide survey-based studies.

How a Projective Test Works

In many projective tests, people are shown an ambiguous image and then asked to give the first response that comes to mind. The key to projective tests is the ambiguity of the stimuli.

According to the theory behind such tests, using clearly defined questions can result in answers that are carefully crafted by the conscious mind. When you are asked a straightforward question about a particular topic, you have to spend time consciously creating an answer.

This can introduce biases and even untruths, whether or not you're trying to deceive the test provider. For example, a respondent might give answers that are perceived as more socially acceptable or desirable but are perhaps not the most accurate reflection of their true feelings or behavior.

By providing you with a question or stimulus that is not clear, your underlying and unconscious motivations or attitudes are revealed.

The hope is that because of the ambiguous nature of the questions, people might be less able to rely on possible hints about what they think the tester expects to see. As a result, they are hopefully less tempted to "fake good," or make themselves look good, as a result.

Types of Projective Tests

There are a number of different types of projective tests. Some of the best-known examples include:

The Rorschach Inkblot Test

This test was one of the first projective tests developed and continues to be one of the best-known and most widely used. Developed by Swiss psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach in 1921, the test consists of 10 different cards that depict an ambiguous inkblot.

People are shown one card at a time and asked to describe what they see in the image. The responses are recorded verbatim by the tester. Gestures, tone of voice, and other reactions are also noted.

The results of the test can vary depending on which of the many existing scoring systems the examiner uses.

The Thematic Apperception Test (TAT)

In the TAT test, people are asked to look at a series of ambiguous scenes and then to tell a story describing the scene. This includes describing what is happening, how the characters are feeling, and how the story will end.

The examiner then scores the test based on the needs, motivations, and anxieties of the main character, as well as how the story eventually turns out.

The Draw-A-Person Test

This type of projective test involves exactly what you might imagine. People draw a person and the image that they created is then assessed by the examiner.

To score the test, the test interpreter might look at a number of factors. These may include the size of particular parts of the body or features, the level of detail given to the figure, as well as the overall shape of the drawing. 

Like other projective tests, the Draw-A-Person test has been criticized for its lack of validity.

A test interpreter might suggest that certain aspects of the drawing are indicative of particular psychological tendencies. However, it might simply mean that the individual has poor drawing skills. 

The test has been used as a measure of intelligence in children, but research comparing scores on the Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence to the Draw-A-Person test found a very low correlation between the two scores.

The House-Tree-Person Test

In this type of projective test, people are asked to draw a house, a tree, and a person. Once the drawing is complete, they are asked a series of questions about the images they have drawn. 

The test was originally designed by John Buck and included a series of 60 questions to ask the respondent, although test administrators may also come up with their own questions or follow-up queries to further explore the subject's responses. For example, the test administrator might ask of the house drawing:

  • Who lives here?
  • Who visits the person who lives here?
  • Is the person who lives here happy?

Weaknesses of a Projective Test

Projective tests are most frequently used in therapeutic settings. In many cases, therapists use these tests to learn qualitative information about individuals.

Some therapists may use projective tests as a sort of icebreaker to encourage people to discuss issues or examine their thoughts and emotions.

While projective tests have some benefits, they also have a number of weaknesses and limitations, including:

  • Projective tests that do not have standard grading scales tend to lack both validity and reliability. Validity refers to whether or not a test is measuring what it purports to measure, while reliability refers to the consistency of the test results.
  • Scoring projective tests is highly subjective, so interpretations of answers can vary dramatically from one examiner to the next.
  • The respondent's answers can be heavily influenced by the examiner's attitudes or the test setting.
4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Kendra Cherry, MSEd
Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."