What Is a Projective Test?

Inkblot projective test
Val Loh / Getty Images

In psychology, a projective test is a type of personality test in which the individual offers responses to ambiguous scenes, words or images. 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 such unconscious desires that are hidden from conscious awareness.

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

Types of Projective Tests

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

The Rorschach Inkblot Test

The Rorschach Inkblot was one of the first projective tests and continues to be one of the best-known. 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.

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 also highly subjective, so interpretations of answers can vary dramatically from one examiner to the next.

Additionally, 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.


Wood, J. M., Nexworski, M. T., & Stejskal, W. J. (1996). The comprehensive system for the Rorschach: A critical examination. Psychological Science, 7(1), 3-10, 14-17.

Lilienfeld, S. O. (1999). Projective measures of personality and psychopathology: How well do they work? Skeptical Inquirer, 23(5), 32-39.

Weiner, I. B. (1997). Current status of the Rorschach Inkblot Method. Journal of Personality Assessment, 68, 5-19.

Continue Reading