Projective tests have their origins in psychoanalytic psychology, which argues that humans have conscious and unconscious attitudes and motivations. Unconscious attitudes and motivations form very early in life and are stored visually rather than verbally, and therefore cannot be verbally retrieved using objective tests. Unconscious attitudes and motivations can also be kept from consciousness by defense mechanisms, such as repression and projection. Conscious attitudes and motivations are formed after language skills have developed and are therefore easily articulated.
The general theoretical position behind projective tests is that whenever you ask a "question," the response that you get will be consciously-formulated and socially determined. These responses do not reflect the respondent's unconscious or implicit attitudes or motivations. The respondent's deep-seated motivations may not be consciously recognized by the respondent or the respondent may not be able to verbally express them in the form demanded by the questioner. Advocates of projective tests stress that the ambiguity of the stimuli presented within the tests allow subjects to express thoughts that originate on a deeper level than tapped by explicit questions.
The best known projective test is the Rorschach inkblot test, in which a subject is shown a series of irregular but symmetrical inkblots, and asked to explain what they see. The response is then analyzed in various ways, noting not only what the patient said, but the time taken to respond, what aspect of the drawing was focused on, and how the response compared to other responses for the same drawing. For example, if someone consistently sees the images as threatening and frightening, the tester might infer that the subject may suffer from paranoia. There is some evidence showing showing that Rorschach's test is as effective as other, non-projective, methods such as Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory.
Another popular projective test is the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT) in which an individual views ambiguous scenes of people, and is asked to describe various aspects of the scene; for example, the patient may be asked to describe what led up to this scene, the emotions of the characters, and what might happen afterwards. The examiner then evaluates these descriptions, attempting to discover the conflicts, motivations and attitudes of the respondent. In the answers, the respondent "projects" their unconscious attitudes and motivations into the picture, which is why these are referred to as "projective tests."
These tests lost popularity during the 1980s and 1990s because many theorists incorrectly equated psychoanalysis with Freudian theory, even though the two are clearly different. Psychoanalysis includes many theories in addition to Freud's, including those formulated by Carl Jung, Erich Fromm, Theodor Adorno and Karen Horney, who either rejected or heavily modified Freud's theories. Carl Jung actually developed one projective test, called the word association test, which asks respondents to state the first word that enters their mind when given another word. Adorno used projective tests exensively in the classic study, The Authoritarian Personality.
Today, many social and cognitive psychlogists now recognize the existence of the unconscious, and distinguish between explicit and implicit attitudes. Explicit attitudes are those that are conscious; implicit attitudes exist below conscious awareness. To study implicit attitudes, cognitive psychologists use a derivation of Jung's word association test, called the implicit association test. This test flashes pictures, names or other associational stimuli rapidly on a computer screen and respondents indirectly evaluative the stimuli as positive or negative.
Projective techniques, including TATs, are used in qualitative marketing research, for example to help identify potential associations between brand images and the emotions they may provoke. In advertising, projective tests are used to evaluate responses to advertisements. The tests have also been used in management to assess achievement motivation and other drives, in sociology to assess the adoption of innovations, and in anthropology to study cultural meaning. The application of responses is different in these disciplines than in psychology, because the responses of multiple respondents are grouped together for analysis by the organisation commissioning the research, rather than interpreting the meaning of the responses given by a single patient.
Theodor W. Adorno, et al. (1964). The Authoritarian Personality. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Lawrence Soley & Aaron Lee Smith (2008). Projective Techniques for Social Science and Business Research. Milwaukee: The Southshore Press.
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