Projective Methods In Psychology Research Paper

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Projective techniques is a term that encompasses any test or procedure designed to increase insight into individuals by allowing them to respond freely to ambiguous stimuli. The underlying assumption is that, when faced with unstructured or ambiguous stimuli, people will reveal aspects of their personality in their attempt to structure the material. In other words, the vague quality of the stimulus evokes free fantasy play and triggers projection on the part of the subject while simultaneously revealing aspects of psychological functioning in the nature of their responses. Many experts believe that everything said or written in response to a stimulus has dynamic meaning and that people reveal conflicts, anxieties, attitudes, beliefs, and needs in their attempt to structure or complete an incomplete stimulus. Projective techniques tend to have brief, general instructions that, when coupled with ambiguous stimuli, tend to elicit less defensive responses than more structured testing. It should be noted that a concern about conflicts, anxieties, attitudes, beliefs, and needs, and the usual attempts to blend these into a picture of a person, is most closely associated with one approach to personality, the psychoanalytic approach. A preference for psychodynamic theory is not required in order to use projective techniques, but it is frequently found. Perhaps this is because one of the hallmarks of the psychoanalytic approach is the prominent role assigned to unconscious processes, and projective techniques are designed with the intention, satisfied or not, of eliciting unconscious material.

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1. Historical Overview

Historically, the turn of the twentieth century was a time when psychological testing was applied predominantly for the study of intelligence. The trend was toward finding data or norms descriptive of groups of people (nomothetic data). At this time, personality measures tended to examine only a single trait at a time (e.g., introversion extroversion, flexibility). The scope began to broaden about two decades later when interest surfaced in tests that yielded specific data about an individual (idiographic data). In the early 1920s, projective testing emerged when Rorschach ([1921], 1942) developed his now famous inkblots in an attempt to aid in the diagnosis of schizophrenia.

The notion of projection with these tests gave birth to the progression of projective techniques throughout the rest of the twentieth century and the belief that ambiguous stimuli can be used to gain insight into the dynamics of the respondent. Frank (1939) coined the term ‘projective methods’ to describe a variety of techniques used by clinicians with ambiguous stimuli that pull for projection. He postulated a projective hypothesis, namely that the world is structured according to internal needs and external demands, so that ambiguous external stimuli will elicit structuring based on internal factors. The ‘Projective Movement’ grew tremendously during the 1940s and 1950s, as clinicians moved away from the nomothetic approach to studying their patients toward the more idiographic approach. More recently, because of psychometric considerations, and possibly because of a reduction in the number of clinicians trained in psychodynamic approaches, the use of projective techniques has waned, leaving an open question and considerable controversy over the value of the projective approach.

Perhaps the most commonly used projective techniques are the Rorschach, the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT), figure drawings, and sentence completion tests.

1.1 Rorschach

The use of inkblots was not a new concept in the 1920s. In fact, a popular game among children at the time was Blotto, in which children used bought or handmade blots of their own. Rorschach’s clinical interest in the use of blots was sparked in 1911, while working with Eugen Bleuler, his professor and supervisor, who coined the term schizophrenia and instigated the need to differentiate schizophrenia from other forms of psychosis. Rorschach believed that the process of perception, as a respondent struggles to make sense of an ambiguous stimulus, reveals the threshold of each respondent to assimilate or integrate the new stimulus with existing mental images. Rorschach happened to observe in his work that schizophrenic patients tended to respond differently in Blotto than patients with other forms of psychosis or dementia, and decided to study this phenomenon more systematically. By 1921, he had administered the test often enough to believe in its usefulness as a diagnostic aid in identifying schizophrenia, but noted unexpectedly that increased frequencies of certain kinds of responses were consistent with certain personality traits or styles. Rorschach died in 1922, but his successors saw the potential of his tool as an idiographic, projective measure and worked over the next two decades to develop a standardized scoring system for responses to the inkblots.

Samuel Beck was a psychology graduate student who attempted, shortly after Rorschach’s death, to do a standardization study as a dissertation topic. He began his work at the Institute for Child Guidance in New York and later took positions at both Boston Psychopathic Hospital and Harvard Medical School. Over the years he gained extensive experience with the use of the inkblots and became acutely aware of the need for more intensive work toward standardization.

Around the same time, Bruno Klopfer came to Zurich to work as a technician at the Zurich Psychotechnic Institute where Rorschach inkblots were routinely used in the screening of candidates for employment positions. After working there for several years, he emigrated to the USA in 1934 and began working at Columbia University. The psychology graduate students at Columbia, who were frustrated by the lack of formal training available in the use of inkblots, were eager to have him share his experience with them. Klopfer began giving informal seminars to students and, in his work with these students, began to develop new scoring codes that seemed necessary, especially those for unusual locations or shading responses. Thus, by 1936, Klopfer was working hard to expand the existing coding system.

At the same time, Beck was busy writing papers that criticized the existing scoring systems for their lack of empirical soundness. He approached Klopfer’s attempts to expand the system with criticism. Over the next 20 years, the arguments continued and different scoring systems were attempted. Despite this controversy over scoring, the method of using the Rorschach continued to burgeon. By 1957, five vastly different scoring systems had emerged.

John Exner began to study the difficulty with using inkblots in 1968. Between 1968 and 1972, he found that most clinicians were scoring the tests in a haphazard manner. Many did not score it at all, and those who did tended to use features of different scoring systems. Only a small minority used one system to score an entire test. Exner set out to develop a system that integrated features of all the available scoring systems that had empirically defensible data, and a system that was not wedded to any single personality theory. Thus, he developed the comprehensive system that is still used by many clinicians and that includes the successful work and research that accumulated from the 1920s onward. The system developed by Exner (1993) is probably the most widely used at the beginning of the twenty-first century, but many clinicians continue to treat the Rorschach purely as a projective device, rather than as a psychometric instrument, and simply interpret the content of the responses according to their understanding of personality. It should be noted that there are several sets of ambiguous stimuli, usually inkblots, that are in use, but the Rorschach is by far the most popular.

1.2 Thematic Apperception Test

In 1935, Morgan and Murray introduced the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT; Murray 1943), a series of provocative pictures used to explore the respondent’s dynamics. The stimuli are more highly structured than inkblots and respondents are required to give more meaningfully organized verbal responses. Respondents are asked to describe the scene in the picture, the apparent emotional content and thoughts of the people involved, what led up to the scene, and what the outcome will be. This test was developed on the premise shared by other projective techniques that people reveal something of their own personality (i.e., their motivational and emotional condition), as well as their cognitive structure, when ascribing thoughts and feelings to ambiguously drawn characters. Just as with the Rorschach, many sets of pictures have been developed for use as an apperceptive approach, but the TAT remains the most widely used.

Perhaps the most popular scoring method for this test is that devised by David McClelland (McClelland et al. 1953). McClelland’s work was devoted to measuring achievement motivation and he scored the TAT responses across seven dimensions: (a) stated need for achievement (someone in the story expresses a desire to achieve a goal); (b) instrumental activity (whether the outcome of the instrumental activity is successful, doubtful, or unsuccessful); (c) anticipatory goal status (whether the person in the story anticipates achieving the goal or being frustrated by it); (d) obstacles or blocks (whether the goal in the story is blocked by an obstacle); (e) nurturant press (whether there are nurturing forces aiding the characters in goal achievement); (f) affective states (emotions present associated with achieving or being frustrated by the goal); and (g) achievement themes (when achievement imagery is the focus of the story).

TAT responses have been studied and scored in a variety of ways, with McClelland’s approach being only one example. By far the easiest and most commonly used method among clinicians is simply to read the responses, look for common themes, treat the stories as psychologically meaningful communications, and consider them as projective tools for understanding the patient’s underlying conflicts and needs.

1.3 Figure Drawings

Figure drawings are a series of drawings by the respondent that the clinician uses to understand nonverbal expressions of the self. Respondents are asked to draw a full person (gender not specified ahead of time), and then to draw a person of the opposite sex of the first drawing. The absolute and relative size of the persons are examined as well as details such as the position on the page, the quality of the lines, the sequence of parts drawn, the stance, position of the arms, and grounding effects. Clinicians have often found these drawings helpful in understanding the self-perception, motor expression, anxieties, and needs of the respondents. Variations of this task ask the respondent to produce other drawings, including drawings of objects such as a house or a tree. In general, regardless of what is drawn, the research with these approaches has not been very encouraging (Swenson 1968).

1.4 Sentence Completion

Sentence completion is another method for gathering information about personality dynamics. Respondents may be asked, orally or in writing, to complete sentences that are vague and ambiguous (e.g., What worries me … ; Women … ; My mother … ). In addition, there have been standardized written sentence completion tests developed by authors such as Rotter (Rotter and Rafferty 1950). As with the TAT and other apperceptive measures, the value of the task often is dependent on the particular set of items that is employed, and the more closely the items approximate the target being studied, the more valuable the responses can be shown to be.

2. Psychometric Considerations

A psychological test or assessment device is subject to evaluation on standard dimensions and, regardless of how compelling a rationale may be, must demonstrate that it meets the usual psychometric criteria before it can be considered to be useful. Foremost among these criteria are reliability and validity (for a more detailed explication of these critical concepts, see Wiggins 1973).

2.1 Reliability

Reliability refers to the extent to which a test provides a consistent measure of what it is measuring. If a test lacks reliability it is akin to using a rubber ruler, providing different measurements each time it is applied, and there is little credence that can be given to any of those measurements. One approach to the measurement of reliability is through retest, with the expectation that a test given on two occasions will produce the same response on both testings. A second approach is internal consistency, which assesses the extent to which every item in a test is measuring the same characteristic.

Although most projective techniques employ many items, the items often are designed to be responsive to different dimensions, and so a projective test may often be seen as a collection of disparate single items rather than a collection of redundant items. Unfortunately, in measurement, redundancy is often desirable, and it is well demonstrated that single items are subject to far more unreliability than collections of items, in which errors may cancel each other out. If there are indeed collections of single items, it can be argued that the test really is a collection of tests, each of which measures a single dimension (and therefore requires a separate assessment of reliability and validity), and does so in a way that reduces the reliability of each. A proponent of these tests would counter that the object being measured is personality, which contains several dimensions, and that the items should converge to produce a clear picture of the multidimensionality of the respondent. Whether or not this is so is a matter of validity.

2.2 Validity

Reliability is necessary but not sufficient for a test. An unreliable test cannot be valid, but a reliable test may not necessarily be valid. Validity is an assessment of the extent to which a test measures what it is intended to measure. This leads to a very interesting problem in assessing the validity of projective techniques. Most projective techniques purport to measure many different aspects of the person, and it is necessary to indicate the validity of every inference that a test draws. Thus, rather than asking, for example, whether the Rorschach is valid, it is necessary to ask, for each inference drawn from the Rorschach, whether or not that inference is valid. One statistical estimate cannot represent the validity of the test, and the general question cannot be answered (Stricker and Gold 1999).

It is not unusual for a research project to compare the validity of projective techniques with more objective, self-report, measures of personality (e.g., McClelland et al. 1989). The usual finding of such studies is that the two approaches do not correlate with each other. Some people have interpreted this as indicating a failure in the validity of the projective approach, a conclusion that assumes the validity of objective tests. Others have determined that this lack of correspondence indicates that each approach is valid, but that they are measuring different aspects of the person. This view suggests that objective tests are superior at measuring objective criteria, such as behavior, whereas projective approaches are superior at measuring more covert, unconscious aspects of the person (Hiller et al. 1999). This interpretation is consistent with the theoretical position that usually underlies each of the approaches to measurement.

It also is reasonable to ask whether the incorporation of a projective approach to a test battery adds anything to the process of assessment (incremental validity). If the conclusion about measuring different aspects of the person is accepted, then projective approaches do contribute incremental validity insofar as the assessor is interested in less overt aspects of the respondent. Given the length of time necessary for the administration and interpretation of projective techniques, the question of cost effectiveness also can be raised. The answer to this question probably is dependent on the individual circumstance. It should be clear, however, that validity, incremental validity, and cost effectiveness are separate questions, and the answer to one does not determine the answer to the others.

Finally, it should be noted that the subjectivity of the projective approach places great stress on the skill of the examiner, and any question of validity is equally a function of the ability of the approach to elicit material and the ability of the examiner to interpret it.

3. Concluding Comments

It can be concluded, with some certainty, that the original promise of the projective hypothesis (Frank 1939) has not been sustained, and that there are many limitations on the conclusions that can be drawn from ambiguous stimuli. However, there are instances in which such stimuli can be used to produce valid inferences, and inferences that cannot be drawn from other approaches to measurement. Whether these inferences are useful depends on the theoretical approach and goals of the examiner, whose skillfulness also must be considered in reaching a conclusion about the utility of projective methods. Because projective techniques do show the promise of providing valid information that is different than that produced by objective measures, it is a path worth pursuing. However, any pursuit will have to be marked by attention to psychometric considerations, a neglect of which has led to the excessive promise of past attempts.


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