Although denigrated by many psychologists, projective tests such as the Rorschach test and the thematic apperception test can be very useful in assessing the personality of adults and children.

In this article we will describe the 5 most commonly used types of projective tests , including associative and expressive or graphic techniques.

What are projective tests?

Projective tests are methods of assessing personality and other mental characteristics that are based on ambiguous and unstructured stimuli. The logic behind this type of test corresponds to the hypothesis that assessed persons are more likely to project their mental processes onto a test if the material is ambiguous and stimulates the imagination.

These techniques have been traditionally framed in the psychoanalytic theory , according to which personality has a stable character and is largely determined by irrational impulses that escape the consciousness of individuals. However, psychoanalysis argues that it is possible to identify the contents of the unconscious through various procedures.

Since it is assumed that the respondent does not know the purpose of the items that make up the test, projective tests are considered less susceptible to misrepresentation than other psychological assessment methods, mainly those based on self-report. Projective tests are said to be masked assessment techniques.

Although this type of test has been highly criticized by psychologists of other theoretical orientations on a methodological level, the truth is that the long tradition of using projective tests has allowed for a high degree of systematization in many of these. A particularly clear case in this sense is the famous Rorschach test.However, despite this systematization, its effectiveness is seriously questioned if we are guided by the meta-analyses that have been carried out in this respect.

Types of projective techniques

There are different types of projective tests: the structural ones, which are based on the organization of the visual material ; the thematic ones, which consist of narrating a story from different images; the expressive or graphic ones, focused on drawing; the constructive ones, such as the test of the imaginary village or the diagnostic game, and the associative ones (e.g. incomplete sentences).

Below we will describe the most popular projective tests and types of tests, including examples of all the classes we have mentioned in the previous paragraph. We will leave aside refractory tests such as graphology , which aims to determine personality from the aspect of writing and has not received any empirical support.

1. Rorschach test

In 1921 the psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach published a psychological test consisting of 10 sheets of ambiguous-looking symmetrical ink spots . Over the years, the subjectivity in the interpretation of this test diminished notably; in particular, in the 1980s Exner’s evaluation system, based on scientific research, became popular.

In the Rorschach test the tester presents the slides in a certain order to the one being assessed; in each case this d e must answer the question “What could this be? without receiving any further indication. The assessor then shows you each picture again to discover which aspects of the picture triggered the responses.

Among the indicators analysed in the Rorschach test we find the number of responses (the normal number in adults is between 17 and 27 in total), the frequency of responses given in the general population or the predominance of certain contents. This analysis may suggest psychopathology ; for example, monotony is associated with depression.

Subsequently, other structural tests based on ink spots have been developed, such as Holtzman’s, which is intended to be more reliable and consists of 45 images, and Zulliger’s Z-Test, which consists of only 3 sheets and is intended as a screening test.

2. Murray’s Thematic Apperception Test

The Thematic Apperception Test or T.A.T., developed by Henry Murray , is the most widely used projective test of the thematic type, especially in the evaluation of older people. It is composed of 31 slides of which only 20 are applied to each individual, according to their biological sex and age.

The images are much more structured than those in the Rorschach test: they show scenes related to topics such as family, fear, sex or violence from which the subject must elaborate a story that includes a past, present and future. The aim is to analyse the needs and psychological pressures of the person being assessed.

There are variations of T.A.T. for different age groups. The C.A.T. tests (“Child Apperception Test”) are applied to children of different ages, cultural levels and physical and psychological characteristics, while the Seniors Apperception Test (SAT) evaluates typical variables in older people, such as loneliness or disability.

Two other well-known thematic tests are Phillipson’s object relations test and Rosenzweig’s frustration test . The pictures of the first one show an intermediate degree of structuring compared to the T.A.T. and the Rorschach, and the Rosenzweig test presents frustrating scenes in which the person has to add a dialogue.

3. Children’s thematic tests

The Blacky and Pata Negra foil tests , created respectively by Gerald Blum and Louis Corman, are thematic tests specific to the child population. Both are based on images of animals (Blacky is a dog and Pata Negra a pig) that serve as stimuli for the children to talk about their vision of themselves and their family.

The fairy tale test is one of the most recent thematic projective tests; it was developed by Carina Coulacoglou in the 1990s. In this case the stimuli are drawings of famous characters from fairy tales, such as Little Red Riding Hood and the wolf or Snow White and the dwarves, and the child must answer several previously established questions.

4. Expressive or graphic techniques

In this type of technique, the person being evaluated has to draw certain elements under the evaluator’s instructions. In comparison with the Rorschach test and the T.A.T., we can say that these tests have a low level of standardisation and their interpretation is quite subjective , although this does not mean that they cannot be useful tools.

Within this category we find Buck’s tree-home test (HTP), Abramson’s drawing of the person in the rain test , Corman’s family drawing test, Koch’s tree test and Machover’s drawing of the human figure test.

5. Associative techniques

The associative techniques consist of emitting responses in relation to a given stimulus. The classic example of these tests is that of word association, used by classic authors such as Galton and Jung , in which a list of terms is presented to which the person being assessed has to answer with the first word that comes to mind.

The incomplete sentence test is similar, although in this case instead of associating one word with another you must finish the sentence started by the assessor. Zazzo’s desiderative (or bestiary) test analyses fear of death and defence mechanisms based on the answer to the question “What would you want to become if you stopped being human?