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.
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.”
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.