What Is a Projective Test?

Projective tests remain popular, but their use is controversial

Inkblot projective test
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A projective test is a type of personality test in which an individual offers responses to ambiguous scenes, words, or images. The goal of such tests is to uncover the hidden conflicts or emotions that the individual projects onto the test with the hope that these issues can then be addressed through psychotherapy or other appropriate treatments.

This type of test emerged from the psychoanalytic school of thought, which suggested that people have unconscious thoughts or urges.

These projective tests were intended to uncover feelings, desires, and conflicts that are hidden from conscious awareness. By interpreting the responses to ambiguous cues, psychoanalysts hope to uncover these unconscious feelings that might be causing problems in a person's life.

Despite controversy over their use, projective tests remain quite popular and extensively used in both clinical and forensic settings. Lilienfeld and others reported that 82 percent of clinical psychologists administered the Rorschach inkblot test, one of the most popular projective tests, at least occasionally. Earlier surveys had found that 65 percent of clinical psychology internship directors surveyed believed that is was important to have formal training in the use of projective tests.

How Do Projective Tests Work?

In many projective tests, the participant is 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, clearly defined questions result in answers that are carefully crafted by the conscious mind.

When asked a straightforward question about a particular topic, the respondent has to spend time consciously creating an answer.

This can introduce biases and even untruths; whether the individual is trying to deliberately or unintentionally 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 that person's true feelings or behavior.

By providing the participant with a question or stimulus that is not clear, the 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" as a result.

Types of Projective Tests

There are a number of different types of projective tests. The following are just a few of the best-known examples.

The Rorschach Inkblot Test

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

The participant is shown one card at a time and asked to describe what he or she sees 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 Thematic Apperception Test, an individual is asked to look at a series of ambiguous scenes. The participant is then asked 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; the subject draws a person and the image 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, the subject is asked to draw a house, a tree, and a person. Once the drawing is complete, the individual is asked a series of questions about the images he or she has 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?"

Strengths and Weaknesses of Projective Tests

Projective tests are most frequently used in therapeutic settings. In many cases, therapists use these tests to learn qualitative information about a client. Some therapists may use projective tests as a sort of icebreaker to encourage the client to discuss issues or examine thoughts and emotions.

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

  • 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.

However, these tests are still widely used by clinical psychologists and psychiatrists. Some experts suggest that the latest versions of many projective tests have both practical value and some validity. In one major overview of the existing research, Lilienfeld and his colleagues concluded that there was some empirical support for a limited number of indexes derived from the Rorschach and Thematic Apperception tests, but that the majority of uses for the tests were not supported.

Based on their findings, Lilienfeld and others suggest that psychologists should employ considerable caution when using projective tests in both clinical and forensic settings. Some of the problems they note include the fact that such tests are highly controversial, that they are susceptible to faking and situational influences, that scoring these tests can be unreliable, and that the available norms may be poor or biased toward a North American audience.

Some research suggests that projective tests such as the Rorschach may have value as supplementary assessments used in conjunction with other diagnostic tests to identify thought disorders. Also, tests such as Rorschach may also hold value for their use as exploratory tools in psychotherapy. Among other testing techniques are self-report or true/false inventories, including the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI)

Sources:

Imuta, K, et al. Drawing a Close to the Use of Human Figure Drawings as a Projective Measure of Intelligence. PloS one. 2013; 8.3: e58991.

Coon, DC & Mitterer, JO. Introduction to Psychology: Gateways to Mind and Behavior. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth; 2013.

Lilienfeld, SO, Wood, JM, & Garb, HN. The Scientific Status of Projective Techniques. Psychological Science in the Public Interest. 2000; 1(2); 27-66.

Wood, JM, Nezworski, MT, & Garb, HN. What's Right with the Rorschach? The Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice. 2003; 2(2).

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