Projective tests: A complete guide with everything you need to know

A complete guide to projective tests. Discover in this article, what are projective tests, how they work, the types and classification of the different projective tests and graphical examples. Discover how do these tests work in a recruitment interview? Their advantages, disadvantages and much more. Keep reading!

Projective tests:
Projective tests: 

Ink stains, house, tree, human figure. There are many types of projective tests that are still in use today. What are they really? What are they used for? How many are there? Are they useful? Find out all about the projective tests here.

What are projective tests?

Projective tests are a type of personality test in which the individual must respond to ambiguous scenes, words or images or in some cases even draw. It differs from objective tests in that the answers can be very varied, there are no correct or incorrect answers. Although there are guidelines for correcting projective tests (and even extensive training is necessary), it can happen that two experts come to different conclusions from the same tests. This, however, is almost impossible in objective tests.

The purpose of projective tests is to know the structure and functioning of the person, in addition to discovering emotions or internal conflicts that the individual is going to project in the answers. After this, the therapist can lead psychotherapy to help the person.

This personality evaluation came from the psychoanalytic school, which suggested that people have unconscious thoughts and impulses. Through the psychoanalyst’s interpretation of the answers, it was possible to bring to light those feelings, desires, and conflicts that are hidden in our unconscious that were causing problems in the patient.

Despite the controversy surrounding the application of projective tests, the use of these techniques continues to be widespread, both in the clinical and forensic fields (assessment of offenders). In fact, the Rorschach Test is the third most used technique by Spanish psychologists.

Although the projective tests can be very different from each other, we could find some basic assumptions, common to most:

  • Projective tests assume that the person has a basic and stable personality structure. This structure is made up of dimensions, features or constructions organized in a unique way. This will be studied through the responses to projective tests
  • There is a relationship between the unobservability of the structure and the behavioral manifestations of the person so the analysis of the structure will allow predicting future behavior.
  • Any response to projective tests is significant and will be understood as a sign of the person’s personality.
  • The more ambiguous the properties of the projective test, the more the person’s personality is reflected.
  • The person is not aware of the relationship between his answers and the inner world, so it is difficult to misrepresent.
  • The analysis of the responses is global.

How do projective tests work?

In many projective tests, the participant has to respond to very ambiguous stimuli, such as images, words, etc. The answers are often unstructured, there are no response options, but you can answer the first thing that comes to mind.

This is the key to these tests: the ambiguity of the stimulus. According to the theories underlying the projective tests, the more ambiguous it is, the more it will be able to reflect the inner world of the subject. The more structured the questions and answers are, the more you will be able to interfere with the conscious mind and mask the result.

In objective personality assessment techniques, in many cases, we can know the most socially acceptable or desirable answers and it can lead to misleading answers. However, many of these tests do have a measure to assess that social desirability.

According to the supporters of projective tests, by relying on unclear stimuli, the person doesn’t know what the answer is socially “desirable”, therefore will respond according to their deepest motivations and attitudes. It’s going to be very difficult to fake the answer.

Types of projective tests

Projective tests can be classified into:

  • Structural. Very abstract visual material that the person must define by saying what he sees or suggests (Rorschach)
  • Thematic. Visual material with different degrees of definition, human or parahuman content whose objective is to tell a story (TAT: Test of Thematic Perception)
  • Expressive. Instruction to draw (test of the tree, the human figure, the house)
  • Constructive. Concrete material is provided with which the subject must construct something.
  • Associations. The subject must verbally associate or complete words, phrases or stories according to certain instructions.

Below we will list the most common projective tests.

Rorschach Projective Test

Rorschach ink stains are one of the first projective tests and continue to be well-known and widespread. It was developed by the Swiss psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach in 1921.

It consists of 10 different cards that illustrate ambiguous ink stains and ask the participant to say what they see there, and what characteristics of the image has led the person to think about it.

Rorschach Projective Test
Rorschach Projective Test

The answers are written down as thoroughly as possible, or even recorded. Gestures, the tone of voice and other reactions are taken into account. The responses are then analyzed according to certain criteria.

Thematic Apperception Test (TAT)

In the Thematic Apperception Test, the person is asked to observe a series of images and describe a story in each one of them, try to reconstruct what has happened, what is happening now and what he believes will happen next. The person also has to describe how the different characters think and feel.

The examiner then scores the test based on the needs, motivations, and anxieties of the main character and how the story ends.

According to the TAT manual: This technique allows us to know the impulses, emotions, feelings, and conflicts of the person some inhibited and underlying aspects or tendencies of the person that he would not admit or recognize because he is not aware of them.

This test is based on the idea that people will create stories or interpret the scenes shown according to their past experiences, current desires, feelings, and needs, both conscious and unconscious.

Expressive or graphical projective tests

Like other projective tests, expressive tests have been criticized for lack of validity. Within this group are the drawing tests. While one examiner may suggest that certain aspects of the drawing indicate specific psychological trends, others may argue that the subject has few drawing skills.

In all these types of expressive tests, the most important thing is the specific characteristics and features of the drawings. In no case is the quality of them valued. The most commonly used expressive or graphical tests are the following:

Projective test of the tree

The tree test provides us with information about the person’s vision of themselves, their resources and the structure of their personality.

As its name suggests, it consists of drawing a tree. From there the examiner evaluates it by looking at the shape of the trunk, roots, soil, fruits, branches, leaves, knots in the wood, attention to detail.

Projective test of the human figure

This graphical test requires drawing a person, as its name suggests. The drawing is then evaluated by the examiner, who will look at the size of different body parts, specific features, level of detail and overall shape of the figure.

The projective human figure test has been commonly used to measure intelligence in children, but research shows that compared to the Wechsler Intelligence test there is little relationship between scores. This suggests that it is not possible for the human figure test to be able to evaluate intelligence, but it may be useful for other aspects.

Graphic projective test of the animal

According to psychoanalysis, the animal represents our unconscious impulses and desires. This projective test of the animal is usually used when the human figure tests make the person anxious, or when they simply are blocked and can’t draw a person. Therefore, the animal test allows them to take more distance and project their inner world into the animal.

The person is asked to draw any animal, and then write down the name, age, sex, and type of animal it is. You may also be asked to make a list of other animals that you thought or would have liked to draw. Finally, you can also tell us a story about that animal.

Projective Test Home – Tree – Person or HTP Test

Very much in line with the previous graphical tests, the home-tree-person test (also known as the HTP test) asks for the drawing of a house, a tree, and a person, in order to evaluate them together and globally.

From the drawing, the examiner asks questions like:

  • Person: Who is a person, how old he is, what does he do best, what does he like least, if someone has tried to hurt him, who loves him.
  • Home: Who lives there, if they are happy, what is inside, how it is at night.
  • Tree: What kind of tree it is, how old it is, what season it is, has someone tried to cut it down, who waters it, does it have enough light to grow.

Projective family test

The graphical family test is a way of knowing the relationships within the family, the place each one has, their role and how each member is seen by the person taking the test. With this test, aspects such as dependence, rivalry, conflict, attachment are evaluated.

The examiner will take into account the position of each member of the family, if anyone is absent, the congruence with reality, the absence of body parts, etc.

Projective tests of the kinetic family

The kinematic family test emerged as an extension of the family test. It consists of drawing yourself and your family doing something. It is this “doing something” that gives it the kinetic aspect.

Projective tests of the couple

The projective test of the couple is used to evaluate the type of bond that the person needs. It also evaluates the image the person has of himself and the other. The current situation, past situations or ideal situations are usually captured, all very useful for exploring possible conflicting experiences.

In this case, the person is asked to draw any two people on the same sheet.  Later he is asked to name and age them, to create a story with these two people, and to give a title to their story. Later on, she is asked questions about the couple, such as what brought them together, what can separate them, and so on.

Projective tests person under rain

To perform the projective test of a person in the rain, the person being tested is asked to draw a person in the rain. Some studies suggest that it may be effective in assessing depression levels and stress management.

Projective tests for children

The projective tests that are most often used with children are the expressive ones, that is, in which they have to draw the tree, the human figure, the house, the family, the animal, etc. Children usually like to draw and use art to express their emotions. Children’s drawings give us a lot of information, especially if we ask them to tell us what they have drawn.

Projective tests for adults

All the above-mentioned tests can be done by adults, but perhaps the ones that are more oriented to this age group are the Rorschach test and the thematic apperception test. The answers are also often more complex.

Adults can also do the expressive graphical tests without any problems, but many people may be reluctant to draw such “childish” things.

Projective tests used in personnel selection

The use of these tests in job interviews is not common. However, they are sometimes used, especially the best-known ones. Some examples of the most commonly used projective tests in personnel selection are the following:

  • The Rorschach test: in personnel selection, the Rorschach test could be useful for detecting psychological disorders.
  • The TAT in personnel selection would be used to assess the candidate’s need for achievement and power, as well as the candidate’s problem-solving capacity.
  • HTP (Home, Tree, Person)
  • The human figure: it is used to evaluate intelligence, personality, and even sexuality. These drawing tests can help reduce interview anxiety and help with communication problems.
  • A person under the rain: to assess how well the candidate performs in stressful situations.

How projective tests work in personnel selection

The application of these projective tests in personnel selection is similar to the application in other fields. The aim is to reveal aspects of the personality in order to choose the person who best fits the job posting, as well as to rule out people who may have problematic personalities.

The advantage of these tests, unlike objective tests, is that it is very rare for people to falsify the answers. In addition, since projective tests are based on the theory that they are able to predict people’s behavior, they would be useful to predict what the worker’s performance will be.

Tips on how to apply projective tests in a job interview?

It is important that, if these projective tests are to be used, the selection of a person for a job should not be based solely on the test results. Because they are not very reliable and the outcome will depend a lot on both the examiner and the person’s emotional state.

Disadvantages of projective tests

One of the biggest drawbacks of these techniques is that there is no consensus on the standardization of instructions for application, correction, and interpretation. This results in interpretation biases, an inconsistency of results, and invalidity (not measuring what they say they measure). Subjectivity in the evaluation of results makes it difficult to reach a consensus.

Furthermore, even though they root from Gestalt and Psychoanalysis, there is no homogeneous theoretical framework from which these techniques are based.  Another drawback is that intensive and extensive training is necessary to handle these tests.

In addition, responses can be influenced by the examiner’s attitudes, test context, and even the emotion or state of mind the person is experiencing at that time.

Advantages of projective tests

Projective tests are often used in therapeutic settings. Therapists use them to gather certain information about the client, or also as a way to “break the ice” and encourage you to discuss certain issues or examine thoughts and emotions.

Some studies indicate (especially for Rorcharch) that it may be helpful in identifying patients with psychosis, bipolar disorder or borderline personality, but it has not been linked to depressive disorders, antisocial personality or PET, among other problems.

Beyond the need to evaluate specific pathologies, these tests can provide quite rich information and reveal conflicts with which to work in therapy that would not otherwise have come to light.

To conclude projective tests can give us a lot of useful information but we should not base our diagnosis on them. They work well as complementary tools for the patient to develop their problems and concerns. I would like to mention that in order to evaluate personality, psychological and cognitive processes there are other cognitive tests that have been shown to be methodologically effective.

This article is originally in Spanish written by Andrea García Cerdán, translated by Alejandra Salazar.