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Personality tests are designed to reveal what’s going on in our subconscious minds, the deep-down place where our emotions and inner conflicts reside. Structured surveys have a list of anywhere from 10 to 600 questions and test takers answer each by choosing from response scales, usually rating items on a five-point scale from most to least. Projective tests are a different matter. The key to projective personality tests is the use of deliberately vague and ambiguous images to stimulate storytelling. 

Since long ago, men (and they were men, back then) sought ways to understand how the mind works and what makes some people zig and others zag

Most of them were psychiatrists, psychologists, and physiologists.

German physiologist Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828) is generally considered to be the father of phrenology

Phrenologists believe that the shape of one’s skull and the bumps on it indicates what’s going on inside (but only if you know how to read them). Today we know phrenology to be every bit as scientific as palm reading.

Automated phrenology

During the Great Depression, Henry C. Lavery built a complicated electric machine (The Lavery Automatic Phrenometer) that had nearly 2,000 parts. The subject sat in a chair and the headpiece was lowered onto the head much as a hair dryer in the beauty parlor. Probes were connected to the head and carried signals to the electronic brain that calculated the subject’s personality type.

Lavery convinced entrepreneurs they could use his $2,000 machine to measure people’s personalities and draw crowds

The Museum of Quackery says “Two enterprising promoters set up shop in the Black Forest Village at the 1934 Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago and netted $200,000 at their standing-room-only booth!”

Physical types

During World War One, Ernst Kretschmer was a psychiatrist who studied shell shock and hysteria. These days, the condition is known as post-traumatic stress syndrome. His idea was that certain mental disorders correlated with three specific physical types — tall and thin, short and round, and athletic and muscular. According to Kretschmer, the tall and thin types were as prone to schizophrenia as the roly-poly types were to manic-depressive disorders.

After studying with Carl Jung, physician and psychologist Willam Sheldon came along with his version of Kretschmer’s body types, which he called somatotypes

According to Sheldon, body types were indicators of personality,

  • Tall and lean ectomorphs were introverted, intelligent, quiet, and shy.
  • Athletic mesomorphs were assertive, active, and competitive.
  • Short and stout endomorphs were extroverted, relaxed, cheerful, sociable, and lazy.


The Missing Link

Matthew Willis, author of Criminal Minds? Try Criminal Bodies, says Cesare Lombroso believed criminals were born, not made. More to the point, they were such primitive throwbacks that they were likely the missing link between apes and humans. Lombroso said you could identify criminals just by looking at them because of their “moral monstrosity within.” 

Lombroso studied the faces of prisoners and lunatics, then drew his conclusions

Among them, he claimed murderers, rapists, thieves, and undesirables could be singled out by their physical appearance. Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini’s jackbooted thugs liked the idea so much that they used Lombroso’s system to catalog their enemies.


In psychology, projection is the process of displacing our feelings onto someone or something else. With most projective tests, study subjects are shown images and asked to make up stories about them. According to believers, the stories told by test takers reveal their inner attitudes, values, and beliefs because people project them onto the images they are shown. 

Medical professionals do not use projective tests as the sole basis for their diagnoses

Experts know projective tests have value only when used by trained professionals in therapeutic settings, and only along with other tools, techniques, and assessments, They also know that research has shown over and over again that completely different conclusions are drawn when different evaluators analyze the exact same testing data, making findings even more subjective.

Storytelling prompts

The prime example of using pictures to prompt stories is the Thematic Apperception Test. Now nearly 100 years old, the TAT is mostly used by medical staff to evaluate emotionally disturbed people. It was developed by Harvard professors Henry A. Murray and Christiana D. Morgan.

Murray later gained notoriety by studying how Harvard undergraduates responded to extreme verbal abuse. He was in the news again when it was discovered the Unabomber (Ted Kaszynski) was one of the students he abused. According to Wikipedia, Morgan was an artist, writer, and lay psychoanalyst. Carl Jung said she was the perfect female inspiration. Much gossip surrounds her, most of it salacious.

How does the TAT work?

Patients are shown a series of picture cards that depict a variety of characters, scenes, and situations. They are asked to tell dramatic stories that explain what is happening now, what came before, and what came after. Psychiatrists examine these stories to identify the recurring themes and repetitive elements that appear to naturally and unconsciously coexist in meaningful ways.

In other types of projective tests, study subjects are shown photos, scenes, words, phrases, or other visual stimuli

Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung noticed how certain words triggered emotional reactions from his hospitalized patients. He believed their responses represented their subconscious associations, so he built a test that prompted people with statements they could agree or disagree with (I always see the glass as half-full, for example). Using his analytical skills, he slotted test takers into archetypes, ideal examples of inherited patterns of thought.

The Lüscher Color Test

Max Lüscher was a Swiss psychologist who believed subjective states could be objectively measured with his color preference test. Test takers are presented with the eight colored squares below and asked to choose the most attractive, then the next, until all eight have been chosen. The second time around, the colors are rearranged and subjects repeat the selection process. There are more than 40,000 possible different sequences each time (8x7x6x5x4x3x2x1). You can take the interactive online test here.

How about inkblots?

Ink blots are truly ambiguous because they’re random splotches, not drawings or pictures of actual people and things. 

Long before they were diagnostic tools, inkblots were a game

When he was a child, Hermann Rorschach’s father encouraged him to paint and draw. Herman was fascinated with a game called Klecksography, meaning writing about ink blobs. He was so obsessed with the game that his friends called him Klex.

Klecksography is a game played by dropping blobs of ink on a piece of paper and then folding the paper over itself while the ink is still wet, smudging the blobs. Kids take turns making up stories about these bilaterally symmetrical abstractions.


The National Library of Medicine says that while Rorschach was studying delirium, hallucinations, and dream symbolism, he began experimenting with a series of inkblots he showed to mentally ill patients. His colleague Szyman Hens was already using inkblots to study his patients’ fantasies and French psychologist Alfred Binet had used inkblots of his own to study creativity and variations in involuntary imagination. Rorschach thought this idea was very cool, especially when he merged his childhood inkblot experiences with Carl Jung’s use of word association tests to tap into people’s dreams and unconscious minds. The most famous word association game is called Password.

Rorschach used his vague images as tools to stimulate free association among his patients

The Swiss psychoanalyst’s basic idea was that people’s minds will work hard to give meaning to the meaningless images they are shown and their stories and descriptions will reveal their unconscious thoughts. In 2001, Scientific American declared the inkblot test to be pseudo-scientific because different psychologists drew different interpretations when shown the exact same data. The same criticisms are leveled against most personality tests, especially when used outside a medical environment.

At first, Rorschach said his inkblots were just a way to study how people see things

But then he observed that people with different types of personalities were seeing things differently, meaning his inkblots could be used as a personality test. And so they were, in time becoming the most recognizable symbol in psychiatry and psychology.

Why do see recognizable images in meaningless inkblots?

It’s our human tendency to see patterns in nature. Apophenia is the scientific term for “an unmotivated series of connections accompanied by feelings of abnormal meaningfulness.” It’s related to pareidolia, the perception of faces in non-human objects. Taken to their extremes, both are symptoms of psychiatric dysfunction.

Drawing tests

The most well-known projective drawing test is the House-Tree-Person test. The examiner asks the test taker to draw a house, a tree, and a person, then answer probing questions. Clinicians interpret the data to identify how people function emotionally, socially, and cognitively.

Drawing tests are most often used in therapeutic settings, especially as indicators of schizophrenia

Interpretations of drawings use the same principles as handwriting analysis — accuracy, proportion, detail, the type of strokes, and more. Take a look at these three drawings made by severely ill mental patients and take a stab at your own analysis.

Lots of psychiatrists explore people’s deepest repressed emotions

Leopold Szondi was a Hungarian psychiatrist who did so on the basis of whether people were sympathetic or aversive to photos of psychopaths. His idea was that what bothers us in others is caused by negative experiences that we have buried deep inside ourselves. As the story goes, Leopold was on the battlefield in 1916, with a copy of Sigmund Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams in his knapsack. When the book stopped an enemy bullet, Szondi said Freud had saved his life.

The original Szondi Test included pictures of 48 men and women

Test takers were shown six different cards, one at a time. Each card held eight headshots. Subjects were instructed to choose the two images they find the most attractive, then the two they find most repulsive.

The people in the Szondi pictures were not typical citizens

They were male and female mental patients. All were unfortunates who had been classified as catatonics, depressives, epileptics, homosexuals, hysterics, maniacs, sadists, and schizophrenics. The website psycho-tools.com has the full test online, it takes only a few minutes, and it comes with an A.I. diagnosis.

Here is a one-question version of the Szondi test that is, of course, grossly oversimplified

Believers say your choice reveals your darkest and most repressed impulses*. Read the one-sentence instruction and take the one-question test right now.

Directions: Look at the portraits of these eight people and choose the one you would never want to meet at night in the dark because his or her appearance causes disgust and fear in you.

Most personality tests have been discredited by the scientific community

In his book The Pseudoscience Wars, Princeton science historian Michael D. Gordin said “There is no person who wakes up in the morning and thinks to himself, ‘I’ll just head into my pseudo-laboratory and perform some pseudo-experiments to try to confirm my pseudo-theories with pseudo-facts.’”


Harvard Business Review says “In recent lawsuits, courts have ruled that the use of certain tests discriminates against protected classes of workers, particularly those with disabilities. Research suggests that many beliefs held by HR professionals about personality screening run counter to scientific evidence. And management scholars worry that fixating on personality as the primary source of conflict at work can cause managers to overlook the crucial role they play in creating the enabling conditions for teams to succeed – whatever their composition.”

HR departments love tests that are cheap, easy to administer, and easy to interpret

With HR doing the choosing, lots of otherwise sensible organizations use personality tests for the wrong things in spite of all the evidence saying not to.

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From our always-on, world-at-our-fingertips, 21st-century perch, it’s easy to see how foolish these people were, what sorts of nonsense they believed in, and how easily others were duped. One of the things history should teach us is that some of the things we think are real today will turn out to be every bit as bad when examined more closely.

If you’re a fast forgetter, I’ll remind you of the impossibly wonderful piece of scientific gadgetry that Theranos (valued at $9 billion) claimed worked miracles. It was exposed as fakery, the company collapsed, and the boss was sentenced to a long prison stretch.

*Your personal Szondi test interpretations

  1. You are either a sadist or a completely harmless and peaceful person.
  2. You are impulsive, irritable, and aggressive, or a kind and peaceful person.
  3. You have a wild imagination or are timid, stiff, and inhibited.
  4. You are either apathetic and withdrawn or act very sociable in spite of feeling isolated.
  5. You are a superficial narcissist and exhibitionist who gives the impression of being shy or you have a rare hobby.
  6. You lack self-esteem and are deeply depressed because of it. On the other hand, you might seem confident and optimistic or suspicious and morose.
  7. You are an overstimulated extrovert who overestimates yourself or you are logical, thrifty, and restrained.
  8. You want to live and be accepted as a member of the opposite sex or your behaviors and appearance emphatically confirm your biological sex.
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