How Projective Tests Are Used to Measure Personality

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. The goal of such tests is to uncover the hidden conflicts or emotions that you project onto the test with the hope that these issues can then be addressed through psychotherapy or other appropriate treatments.

How Projective Tests Came About

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.

Despite controversy over their use, projective tests remain quite popular and are extensively used in both clinical and forensic settings. Recent research shows that while training in projective testing in psychology graduate settings has rapidly declined over the past decade or so, at least one projective test was noted as one of the top five tests used in practice for 50 percent of 28 worldwide survey-based studies.

How Projective Tests Work

In many projective tests, you 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're 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 his or her 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 and are 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. Here are a few of the best-known examples:

  • 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. You're shown one card at a time and asked to describe what you see in the image. The responses are recorded verbatim by the tester. Gestures, the 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, you're asked to look at a series of ambiguous scenes and then to tell a story describing the scene, including 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: you draw a person and the image you created is then assessed by the examiner. The test interpreter might look at factors such as 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. While a test interpreter might suggest that certain aspects of the drawing are indicative of particular psychological tendencies, many might argue that it simply means that the subject 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, you're asked to draw a house, a tree, and a person. Once the drawing is complete, you're asked a series of questions about the images you've 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?," and "Is the occupant happy?"


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

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

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

  • The respondent's answers can be heavily influenced by the examiner's attitudes or the test setting.
  • Scoring projective tests is highly subjective, so interpretations of answers can vary dramatically from one examiner to the next.
  • 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.
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