What is a Projective Test?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A projective test is a tool used in psychotherapy and psychology in which the subject is exposed to an ambiguous stimulus such as an abstract image or an incomplete sentence and the test administrator notes the subject's response. The idea behind such testing is that when people are prompted with concrete stimuli, they respond with their conscious minds, while ambiguous stimuli can provoke responses from the subconscious, giving the test administrator a better idea of what is going on inside. Some people, including people in the psychology community, have criticized projective tests, arguing that they have a number of flaws which raise questions about how valuable they are.

Where multiple choice exams are highly reliable, projective tests are subjective.
Where multiple choice exams are highly reliable, projective tests are subjective.

In a projective test, the subject is forced to project internal thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and ideas onto the stimulus because it does not provide enough information on its own. In the Rorschach test, a famous example of a projective test, for example, people are shown a series of ink blots and asked to respond to them. The blots themselves are random in nature, but in an attempt to describe and order the blots, the subject may attribute characteristics to them, such as “this blot looks like a butterfly.”

A psychotherapist may help an individual recognize their own projective identification using tests or talk therapy.
A psychotherapist may help an individual recognize their own projective identification using tests or talk therapy.

Another example of a projective test is a test in which people are shown a photograph or drawing which depicts an ambiguous scene, and they are asked to explain what is going on in the scene and to provide information about what happens next. Likewise, people may be asked to draw people or scenes. Some psychologists believe that certain subconscious personality traits may be expressed during drawing exercises.

The responses to the stimuli are believed to provide information about internal thought processes. When people are taught to use projective test materials as they undergo clinical training, they are provided with tools for interpreting the results. However, part of the problem is that the interpretation is subjective. When someone takes a complete a sentence test, for example, two different psychotherapy professionals can come up with very different evaluations on the basis of the subject's answers.

In order to work well as a test, something must have both reliability and validity. If a test could be administered to multiple people who all achieve results which can be objectively measured, it is reliable; it can be repeated in different environments and consistent results can be obtained. For example, a multiple choice exam is highly reliable. Projective tests, on the other hand, are not as reliable because the results are subjective. Validity explores whether or not the test measures what it claims to measure, and this has also been called into question with these types of psychological tests.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@anon946051: I now also read the study of Gruber and Kreuzpointner (2013) and in my opinion it solves the problem for reliability quite good for the TAT. Anyone should replicate their study with the Rorschach and publish it, so that the prejudices for projective tests will disappear!


@bear78: The problem with reliability is the way it is measured. I recently read an article of Gruber and Kreuzpointner (2013) in the journal PloS ONE: they introduce a new method of measuring reliability of the TAT. Their result is that the TAT also has high reliability coefficients if the reliability is measured in the right way. Maybe the Rorschach test could also benefit from this method?


I am curious about something. Can a projective test still work if you are testing someone with a personality disorder or schizophrenia?

I mean, people with these disorders can think and act as though they are someone else right? So, can a projective test show that person's true identity? Or will it just show what that person is pretending to be?

Thanks for the info.


I'm no expert but I think when it comes to criticizing personality, there will always be some ambiguity associated with it. It's based on perceptions so you can never expect it to be an objective test.

But I still think that projective tests can be useful. Maybe not in every circumstance and not with everyone. But it may help the psychologists to start to decipher that individual's subconscious.

I don't agree with generalizing anyway. There is no reason for a projective test to fail if it used on an individual basis and is compared to a norm.


If projective tests are not very reliable, then why are they used for forensic and medical decisions? In TV shows and films, I see psychologists doing the Rorschach test on potential criminals. Then they make a decision and tell the cops whether this might be the criminal they are looking for or not.

I'm not sure if that's how it works in real life. But if it does and the results of these tests depend on the psychologists, they could be making serious mistakes.

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