Projective Tests and their applications

Psychological evaluation is a current procedure, used in many contexts with children and adults alike. Testing is a part of that evaluation and that’s where and when we’ll find the projective tests. However, it’s important to remember that they are an auxiliary method and can never give us a diagnosis by themselves.

Projective tests are inserted in a complete psychological evaluation and can’t be used as a definitive portrait of an individual. By itself, a projective test can’t tell us who a person is or what they are thinking.


How do I decide among them?

It’s important to know exactly how they work and the answers they might, or might not, provide you with, so you can choose properly what the best option for you and your patient, actually is, taking into consideration the evaluation’s goals. The truth is that some tests actually complement each other (such as Rorschach and TAT for adults) and you should choose carefully what and which ones you’ll use and apply both when the situation requires it.


Are they truly accurate?

You’ll probably find many different opinions about projective tests, but, the better answer for this question is that it “depends on what you’re looking for”.

Projective tests show us a life’s reality, but it must be analyzed within that person’s context to make any sense. The same answer might have different meanings to different people with different lives and experiences, so you can’t make a projective test and expect to know a person solely based on the outcome. Actually, you should know your patient, have some sort of clinical relationship with them and maybe then, the projective test may have some validity.

The answers you’ll get during the test, as well as the behavior the subject will exhibit during its application (for example, trying to create a distance or, otherwise, giving the test an excessive meaning and living the situation with too much intensity – everything counts) are an interesting manifestation of the way that particular person interacts with and interprets the world around them.

The information given by projective tests together with other information from different sources will allow us a better apprehension of the psychic functioning of our subjects.


Sounds good, but… what about my patient? How would he or she experience it?

This is one of the first questions you should ask yourself. You know your patients well enough to realize the impact this kind of test will have on them (if you don’t, then probably now is not the time), and, thanks to that, you can evaluate if it’s a good option or if it will do more harm than good. Of course, this is different when you’re facing a mandatory evaluation…

So, I’ll present you with three delicate situations you might find yourself in and that can prevent you from reaching your goals.

You can have in front of you, a person that will live the test like if they were still in school taking some crucial final exam. This is not good for the evaluation as the person will not be relaxed and will probably lie or omit something in their answers whilst lost searching for the best answer in order to get “good grades”.

The most common difficulty however, is what I’d call the suspicious patient. It’s normal to find some mistrust in a patient under evaluation (this also tends to say something about the person), but you should try to change this feeling. Trust is important for accurate results.

And, the last one: the subject that uses the test as a way of expand, sometimes totally and uncontrollably opening themselves up. This kind of patient will use the test to say everything that comes to his mind, no matter what it might be. The test will function as an excuse for them to free themselves and say whatever they want, without filter. Again, it says something about the person and this kind of behavior cannot be ignored.


Projective Techniques and Clinical Psychology

There was a time, where the projective techniques were the most used in any field of psychology, however, with the continuous development of science and the deviations of psychology regarding philosophy, they are now, mostly used by clinical therapists.

Psychology no longer just stands for an individual telling things to a therapist in a closed room. There are many areas of psychology (such as social, educational, forensic…), all of them with a huge development, scientifically speaking, which was a big determinant for clinical field too.

Methods and tools are now widely validated theoretically and methodologically and that provided great advances in the field. However, clinical psychology focuses on the individual as a specific person, a psychological being, according to a specific theoretical and strategical reference.

For us to reach through to the individual, we must have more than what he is saying at this very moment, we have to contextualize that, according to the person’s life story, the context, where all of what they’re saying is inserted, and based on it, the therapist will make the interpretation of such information and make more sense of it.

This is the context where projective techniques and tests are born.

Projection Concept

For a more accurate understanding of all this, it’s necessary to know what the concept of projection means in the field. Psychologically speaking, projection is the way a subject understands his environment and how he answers to it taking into account his experiences.

Consequently, the projective techniques intend to deconstruct a reality, allowing the therapist access to recognize the psychological filters and schemes that may, or are indeed interfering in his relationship with the patient.

Therefore, they are quite important and even effective in clinical psychology, despite the fact that they are considered a little outdated within other fields.

Kosslyn Computational Model

Kosslyn’s model goes and meets Paivio’s model in many ways. According to Kosslyn, our mind possessess two permanent information storages: images and propositions.

Via the images storage you will find information about the object’s form (through images) and through the propositional one, you’ll find the object’s meaning. These two types of representation are separated, however, they must join up in order for us to be able to represent the object in our minds.

For Kosslyn, images are represented in a spacial medium, with a limited capacity. It provides us the ability to deal with spatial relationships and object rotation, but the information depends on some perspectives.

For example, in a 1975 study, Kosslyn asked the subjects to imagine a rabbit and an elephant. Then, he asked them to imagine a rabbit and a fly. The rabbit had way more details in the second condition, because it’s the larger animal and our representation acts accordingly to that fact.

Two levels of image representation

According to Kosslyn, the image representation has two components, a superficial representation and a deep one.

The deeper representation is the stored information in Long-term Memory, from which the superficial representations branch out. These ones happen at visual level in the active memory.

In deep representation, the images could be subdivided in literal or perceptive appearance of the object and the list of propositions describing the object.

In conclusion, looking at a practical example: an image of the country’s president implies both the existence of an image and a proposition, in this case the presidency.

Paivio’s theory of dual coding

According Paivio’s theory, people use two systems of Mental Representation. They are independent from each other, yet connected. They are the verbal system and the non-verbal system and this is the basic assumption of Dual Coding Theory.

Each one of these systems has different types of information. Paivio defended that the non-verbal system deals with images and its equivalents in other sensory organs, while the verbal system dealt with the language processing. But, as I stated above, theses two systems are connected and each and any concept is associated to other concepts, in both systems, at the same time.

In 1971, a memory test was made in order to support this theory and provide some answers about this dual coding system. A long list of words and photos was given to the test subjects for memorizing. The results were unanimous: the subjects always recalled more photos than words.

In order to understand these results, some comparisons and analysis were required. First off, it was necessary to compare the verbalizable photographs with the non-verbalizable ones, as well as, the words that were more or less imagetic.

The differences between the subjects who were told to build a mental image for any presented word and the ones who were not instructed in that way were also analyzed.


General Conclusions

Cognitive performance is mediated by two interrelated systems which are different in structure, organization and information representation. In the verbal system (logogens) the information is represented in an abstract, logical and sequential manner, while in the non-verbal system, the representation is made through images in a concrete and analogical manner.


Coding Redundancy

Paivio studies’ show that the mnesic performance increases directly with the quantity of alternative codes in memory, which means, that if you can make the subject memorize a piece of information in the two systems of representation, the probability of him recalling it increases.

Although, these studies also show that if you give the test subject the information in a single code and ask him to create a second one, it will interfere with his memory capacity, which hypothesizes that sometimes, dual coding some sort of information can just be redundant.


Some modern neurocognitive studies support this theory.

What is Imagery?

A concept born with Aristotle, imagery can be defined imagery as an internal ability to represent images. However, in truth, imagery is much more than that. It’s a way of thinking which involves your senses in your thought process. It’s the ability of creating an image in your mind that you can see, hear, feel, smell or taste.


It’s an implicit system of codification that you use as an instrument in order to recover information about physical properties and relationships among different objects.

There are several different areas of investigation in regards to imagery. Scientists have long been focused on: imagery as a material’s property or attribute, as a cognitive process, as a personal experience (due to the fact that the vivacity of the internal images differs from person to person) and even imagery as a mental representation.

You need former experiences to produce internal images from external stimuli and those will allow you to describe the object or place. Maybe even allow you to describe a more complex scene that you’re seeing in your mind.

But, since we’re talking about something so subjective, the data must of course be obtained through verbal reports from the study subjects.

This whole concept of imagery includes two types of representation: analogical and propositional. In analogical representation we’re talking about the perception, or in other words, the image that arrives at your retina with all of its sensory qualities. The propositional representation however, includes no perception, being the images’ descriptions of the different visual scenes.

Marr’s Theory of Vision

David Marr (1945-1980), British neuroscientist and physiologist, developed one of the most known theories about the way our vision works. According to him, we receive an input in a similar way to an image in our retina, and this will then be processed by our brain in three different steps.

Primal Sketch

When you first receive an image of an object, your retina makes a simple register of the light intensity in each point of said image. That’s when you start detecting the vertices, the boundaries between objects, shapes, spots of union… Resuming, you get the fundamental points of the object, but not the depth or textures yet. This primal sketch is totally dependent on which perspective the object is presented to you at.

The 2.5D Sketch

The second step is still dependent on the perspective in which the object is presented to you at, yet, now you have more information to work with, such as the textures as well as depth and you can start to see how the visible surfaces of said object relate to each another.

3D Model

In this last step, you’ll be able to get the information which is not dependant on the perspective. These representations are built from the visual inputs and compared with the representations stored in your Long-term Memory. At this point is where object recognition will take place.


Marr’s theory is able to tie together the initial vision and the eventual object recognition, providing us a theory that can explain the whole system of recognition and identification of objects and patterns visually presented to us.

Perception: What you see and what you think you see

Perception is the significance you give to what you see or feel, the stimuli you receive from your senses, the significance you give to the objects, the way you see or feel them and the way you put them into space.

Vision is a very important sense for most of the people, it’s through your eyes that you’ll recognize the world and receive information. However, you must be able to represent this information or it won’t be enough.

In order to recognize an object, there are a lot of systems working closely together in your mind and, sometimes, all it takes is a change in perspective for you not to be able to recognize a once familiar object. So, what makes you recognize the objects and the world around you?

Perception refers to a representation of stimuli based on a pattern, it will provide us the possibility of recognizing an object and detect its location in the space. It’s an active process of our mind, where our former knowledge and information are used for the recognition of other object and entities.


Visual Cognition

The visual recognition is, as you might imagine, quite complex, so what are the cognitive processes involved in it?

There are three major theories that try to explain the way our brain makes these recognitions: Template-matching Theory, Conceptual Categories and Structural Models.

According with the Template-matching Theory, you have images from all objects in your mind and when you receive any new stimuli, you’ll search your memory for an image that matches with the current one. As you see it’s a very simple theory (too simple) and because of that, it raises a lot of questions. It cannot explain how you recognize an object given a specifically unfamiliar perspective or how you process such a large amount of information so quickly. It’s inflexible and inherently flawed.

The Conceptual Categories Theory talks about concepts that will be mental representations of the objects. According to this theory, our brain will group the concepts into categories, which can be subordinated from one another. The subordinated categories will inherit the properties of superordinate categories and have some new properties of their own.

This theory isn’t free of problems and one of the major ones is the lack of formal definition from some of its concepts and the very thin lines and frail differences between some of the aforementioned conceptual categories.

In regards to Structural Models, there are two main theories here, the Geon Theory and the Recognition-by-Components Theory, both by Biederman. The Geon Theory defends that there are primitive forms which are regrouped according to specific rules and the object is the spacial arrangement of its geons, as you can see in the image below. It’s a very simple theory and, because of that, reductive in its nature.

So, Biederman elaborated the Recognition-by-Components Theory (RBC), according to which, our brain will detect the non-accidental properties (the ones that do not change much, even given different perspectives) of the object and its concavities. From these two elements, the human brain will be able to determine the components which will be compared to the object representations in our memory.