Projective Testing Methods

What Are Projective Tests?

If you think you know what projective tests are, you may only know half the story.

Here at Inkblot Analytics, we are constantly working to innovate technological solutions for psychological testing. For example, our very first product was Brand Blots, an AI-powered platform for projective tests. A lot of times, customers ask us if projective tests are those "Freudian tests that tap into the unconscious."

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We thought it was time to write a blog post shedding light on a few misconceptions.

Projective Tests—It’s Complicated

Projective tests have a long and complicated history. Over the course of that long and complicated history, they became linked with the psychoanalytic school of thought which, ultimately, caused the eventual demise of this type of testing. At the same time, those things that were most promising about these tests were forgotten. At Inkblot Analytics, we picked up these forgotten pieces and used them to put together our Brand Blots platform. So if you think you know what projective tests are, you may only know half the story.

The Story You Know: The Unconscious, Projection, and Projective Tests

The history you may know about projective tests is that somewhere along the way, projective tests “hitched a ride” with the Psychoanalytic school of thought. Generally speaking, Psychoanalysis theorized that the mind had three parts:

  • The conscious – what you are currently thinking about at any given moment

  • The preconscious – what you’re not thinking about in the here-and-now, but which you could think about whenever you want

  • The unconscious – what you’re not thinking about in the here-and-now, and which your mind won’t let you think about (they’re too traumatic), but that still influences your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

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Sigmund Freud, one of the founding fathers of Psychoanalysis, believed that unconscious content could only be revealed through techniques like free association, talking in a constant stream-of-consciousness. Because the individual is talking about whatever comes to mind in any given instant, the technique prevents these individuals from thinking about what they’re going to say, therefore making it harder to censor themselves. This technique allows an individual to express those thoughts and feelings at the “bottom” of the unconscious and reveal its hidden secrets.

Similar to free association, projective tests were often seen as a way to provide individuals with an avenue to express what is unconscious, without knowing it. Ambiguous stimuli (such as an inkblot or an ambiguous scene) were shown to participants and the researcher or clinician would prompt the participant for a response. Ambiguous stimuli were seen as ideal because:

  • it was posited that respondents couldn’t answer the prompt in any logical or literal way, as nothing logical or literal was being displayed in the image (it was ambiguous).

  • it was posited that respondents couldn’t guess “the right answer” because there was no right answer, the question was left open ended.

  • it was posited that the respondents couldn’t give way to suggestibility, because the prompt was open ended

With the inability to base answers based on logical, literal, correct, or suggested answers, it strips away some of the mind’s censoring defenses, making it harder to keep unconscious content in, and instead paves the way for the respondent to project unconscious contents into their answer. 

Unfortunately for projective tests, Psychoanalysis decreased in popularity over the years. Central tenets of psychoanalysis theory could not be tested or falsified, which meant that as psychologists abandoned psychoanalysis, they abandoned methods associated with psychoanalysis (like projective tests) as well.

The Story You Don’t Know:

What many people don’t know is that the term “Projective Method” was coined by Lawrence K. Frank. Frank’s (1939) original concept of projective techniques was built out of his writings about culture and personality—not psychoanalysis. More specifically, Frank believed that individuals were socialized—they were taught socially normative ways to think, feel and behave by parents, teachers, and social others. But individuals are not just passive receptors of socialization. They can accept, reject (in whole or in part), or modify what is being taught to them. This individual reaction to socialization illustrates that individuals have their own “private worlds” with their own meanings, significances, feelings, and preferences. It is here in these “private worlds” that Frank believed personality could be found. To Frank, personality was the individual’s tendency to use these internal meanings and significances to organize experience and structure their “life space”. 

This definition was different than the dominant approach at the time, trait theory, which outlined an aggregate set of traits and factors located within a static hierarchical organization. Because Frank’s conceptualization of personality was different than the dominant trait theory, it called for a different method--one that explicated the individual’s process of organizing and structuring physical (e.g., inkblots) and psychological materials (e.g., meanings) in real-time. 

Gestalt Psychology, Not Psychoanalysis:

While Frank’s (1939) article has no outright acknowledgement of projective tests being psychoanalytic, one can understand the logical jump that his contemporary academics and practitioners took from “private world” to the “psychoanalytic unconscious”, as they both can be interpreted as “private” “unknown” and “hidden”. But Frank’s use of “private worlds” was more a concept of Gestalt theorists than the psychoanalysts.

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So, next time you hear someone knock projective tests as “Freudian” or psychoanalytic, remember these tests were actually created independently of psychoanalytic theory.

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