Projective Tests

projective tests, projective testing

Projective tests involve a client projecting themselves onto an ambiguous object such as a drawing or image. Where intellectual and objective personality tests have questions and specific answers that result in specific labels, in projective testing, the answers can be as varied as the human race. This allows for more detailed information to be gathered about the individual.

Potential Problems with Projective Tests

Lack of standardization of projective tests

A concern frequently cited with projective testing is that people giving the test may administer and/or interpret the tests differently causing the tests to yield different results. Unlike objective tests, there is no specific key to scoring. Sometimes specific guidelines or methods to interpretation and administration are used, but the human component plays a larger part.

Limitations on who can administer projective test

Because of the ambiguity of the testing stimulus and the unstructured nature of projective testing, professionals must be highly trained and qualified to administer and interpret the results of projective tests. Some tests require specific levels of degrees in specialties as well as training courses. In most U.S. states, projective tests can only be administered by individuals holding a doctoral degree in psychology and a license as a psychologist.

Limitations due to time and cost requirements

Intense interviewing and analysis is required to draw conclusions from projective techniques. These tests cannot simply be run through an algorithm and then printed out. They must be analyzed and compared with guidelines or standards for scoring. This time-intensive requirement coupled with the need for highly trained and degreed professionals makes it an extremely expensive process as well as limiting for many.

Benefits of Projective Testing

Study of Conscious and Subconscious

Objective testing requires the client to answer questions using what they are consciously aware of. However, we know that many people don’t just struggle with things they are aware of, they may have trauma or other struggles that are suppressed by the protective measures of the brain. Objective tests may not be able to tease these things out while projective measures are designed specifically for this purpose.

Mitigate Social Desirability Effect

Because the person is unlikely to guess how each aspect is being measured, behavior should be more natural and reliable. When individuals answer the multiple choice style questions of objective testing, it is easy to tell which choices are more “socially acceptable” than others. This effect can lead to invalid profiles in objective testing with validity measures or can lead to highly inaccurate profiles.

Projective test examples

While not an exhaustive list, we will talk about four commonly utilized projective tests below.


The HouseTree-Person (HTP) test helps with assessing personality traits. Based on the Draw-a-Man test from 1926, it was initially thought to evaluate the intelligence of children. However, it has been adapted as a form of evaluating a person through the self-expressive medium of art by John Buck, first in1948 and then updated in 1969.

In this projective test, the individual (as young as three years old) is asked to draw the best house they can. They may need to be reassured that it isn’t their drawing abilities being tested and may have some hesitance. After the house is completed, they are asked to draw a tree, then a person. 

The key in projective testing is not only what is drawn but why, so it is essential. After the individual draws the objects asked for, the administrator then asks a series of primarily standardized questions about the drawings.

The administrator can ask probing questions if appropriate but should make sure to ask the standard questions like:
  • Is the tree alive? 
  • Is it a happy house?
  • How does the house feel?
  • What is the house made of?
  • How does the person feel? 

As with all projective tests, interpretation of the HTP is complicated. Unlike objective tests, which typically have a key and set interpretations, projective testing requires the use of qualitative interpretation, clinical judgment, appropriate training, and experience. Additionally, the clinician can utilize this time to assess behavior during the test administration and determine things like openness to treatment, attention difficulties, and other clinical observations. It is difficult to argue that this test is valid as the validity is heavily determined by the individual practitioner’s subjective interpretation, however, many clinicians argue the helpfulness of this assessment in the evaluation process of clients, especially those who may be hesitant to talk or struggle to put their feelings into words.

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Draw a Person

The Draw-a-Person test was developed from the same Draw-a-man test as the HTP test and was intended to supplement intelligence testing for more nonverbal children. As with the HTP, it allows the test taker to respond by drawing, in this case, a person.

The test is typically administered with a clinician asking the individual to “draw a person doing something” normally the drawing should take about five minutes, and then you move on. However, you should use clinical judgment in this case.

Researchers have argued that DAP has two primary contexts for its use: the prediction of development and screening for emotional struggles. However, as with the HTP, measuring validity and reliability is difficult because it is interpreted subjectively rather than objectively. The drawing is measured by a few things; one is the presence of a discernible human figure and its appropriate attachments (arms, legs, etc.). The other is the presence of details like clothes, fingers, and thumbs.

Like the HTP, the DAP is only as reliable as the clinician administering it and it requires practice to become proficient in utilizing this projective test. After all, you can’t determine if a 7-year-old’s drawing is appropriate if it is the only example you have seen.

The DAP test is best used as part of a rounded assessment which includes a clinical ‘interview’ and other appropriate assessments. Within this context, it can provide helpful additional information and help to build a complete picture of a child’s abilities and thoughts. 

Thematic Apperception Test

The Thematic Apperception Test (TAT) is different from the previous tests. The TAT consists of 20 cards, each depicting intentionally ambiguous interpersonal interaction pictures. The clinician indicates that the test taker should “make up a story around this picture”. Like all good stories, it should have a beginning, middle, and ending. Tell me how the people feel and what they are thinking.

The examiners write the responses for each card word for word. A typical administration includes eight cards and takes about 30-45 minutes to complete. No single, accepted scoring method exists for the TAT, which makes it more of a “clinical technique” than a testing method technically, however, anyone who works with children is familiar with the interpretation of play and storytelling and all of the important data that can be obtained using that method.

Storytelling can tell much about one’s interpersonal relationships and attitudes about the self, as well as any major conflicts related to emotions. This is the benefit of using the TAT in therapy. When you have individuals struggling with expressing themselves accurately, a projective administration can open up doors that would otherwise be difficult to access.

The most commonly accepted method of interpreting the TAT is what is known as the inspection technique. Essentially, the clinician reads through the stories and looks for repetitions, recurring themes, and elements. They may look for the central theme of the story, what the main character needs or does, the nature of conflicts described, etc.

Anything that can provide a picture of how the individual looks at the world and processes events can benefit a clinical understanding of the client.


If projective testing had a king, it’s safe to say the Rorschach would hold that title. Commonly known as the inkblot test, the Rorschach is essentially the celebrity of the psychological testing world. It is frequently referred to in legal TV shows and movies and is either loved or hated by clinicians.

One of the strongest arguments for the Rorschach test is that it is easily adaptable to any language or culture due to its nature. The Rorschach is just a series of ambiguous inkblots on cards, some in color, some in black and white. As with the other projective tests, it’s not only what is said about the blots that matters, but why that is what the individual sees.

The test consists of 10 blots administered to the subject, and the subject states what they see and why they see it. Multiple methods were created to interpret this, and John Exner utilized all of them to create a comprehensive method that is both lengthy and quantified to make the interpretation more reliable and valid.

This test is generally labeled a projective test, but it is important to note that the Rorschach isn’t strictly a projective test. The test  assesses an individual’s perception of themselves, others, and the world around them as well as how they deal with complexity and stressful situations.

Because of the ambiguous nature of the Rorschach, there have been many controversial issues associated with it. However, the American Psychological Association published a meta-analysis in 2013 which confirmed the test’s validity and accuracy in many areas.

It is important to note that there are strict limitations on who can administer a Rorschach due to the complexity of administration and interpretation. Only professional psychologists specifically trained and practiced are qualified to administer and interpret this test.

Other common mental health assessments

If you already own a private practice or are starting a private practice, an EHR can save mental health therapists time. For those mental health therapists just starting up, see our blog on launching a private practice.Also, see our resources for speech therapists, dietitians and occupational therapists.

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