How Projective Tests Are Used to Measure Personality

To avoid the problem of social desirability, various indirect measures of attitudes have been used.  Either people are unaware of what is being measured (which has ethical problems) or they are unable consciously to affect what is being measured.

Indirect methods typically involve the use of a projective test.  A projective test involves presenting a person with an ambiguous (i.e. unclear) or incomplete stimulus (e.g. picture or words). The stimulus requires interpretation from the person.

Therefore, the person’s attitude is inferred from their interpretation of the ambiguous or incomplete stimulus.

The assumption about these measures of attitudes is that the person will “project” his or her views, opinions or attitudes into the ambiguous situation, thus revealing the attitudes the person holds.

However, projective tests only provide general information and do not offer a precise measurement of attitude strength since it is qualitative rather than quantitative. This method of attitude measurement is not objective or scientific which is a big criticism.

Examples of projective techniques include:

Thematic Apperception Test

Thematic Apperception Test TAT

Here a person is presented with an ambiguous picture which they have to interpret.

The thematic apperception test (TAT) taps into a person’s unconscious mind to reveal the repressed aspects of their personality.

Although the picture, illustration, drawing or cartoon that is used must be interesting enough to encourage discussion, it should be vague enough not to immediately give away what the project is about.

TAT can be used in a variety of ways, from eliciting qualities associated with different products to perceptions about the kind of people that might use certain products or services.

The person must look at the picture(s) and tell a story. For example:

  • What has led up to the event shown
  • What is happening at the moment
  • What the characters are thinking and feeling
  • What the outcome of the story was

Draw a Person Test

Figure drawings are projective diagnostic techniques in which an individual is instructed to draw a person, an object, or a situation so that cognitive, interpersonal, or psychological functioning can be assessed.

The test can be used to evaluate children and adolescents for a variety of purposes (e.g. self-image, family relationships, cognitive ability and personality).

A projective test is one in which a test taker responds to or provides ambiguous, abstract, or unstructured stimuli, often in the form of pictures or drawings.

While other projective tests, such as the Rorschach Technique and Thematic Apperception Test, ask the test taker to interpret existing pictures, figure drawing tests require the test taker to create the pictures themselves.

In most cases, figure drawing tests are given to children.  This is because it is a simple, manageable task that children can relate to and enjoy.

Some figure drawing tests are primarily measures of cognitive abilities or cognitive development. In these tests, there is a consideration of how well a child draws and the content of a child’s drawing.  In some tests, the child’s self-image is considered through the use of the drawings.

In other figure drawing tests, interpersonal relationships are assessed by having the child draw a family or some other situation in which more than one person is present.

Some tests are used for the evaluation of child abuse.  Other tests involve personality interpretation through drawings of objects, such as a tree or a house, as well as people.

Finally, some figure drawing tests are used as part of the diagnostic procedure for specific types of psychological or neuropsychological impairment, such as central nervous system dysfunction or mental retardation.

Despite the flexibility in administration and interpretation of figure drawings, these tests require skilled and trained administrators familiar with both the theory behind the tests and the structure of the tests themselves.  Interpretations should be made with caution and the limitations of projective tests should be considered.

It is generally a good idea to use projective tests as part of an overall test battery. There is little professional support for the use of figure drawing, so the examples that follow should be interpreted with caution.

The House-Tree-Person (HTP) test (Buck, 1948) provides a measure of a self-perception and attitudes by requiring the test taker to draw a house, a tree, and a person.

  • The picture of the house is supposed to conjure the child’s feelings toward his or her family.
  • The picture of the tree is supposed to elicit feelings of strength or weakness. The picture of the person, as with other figure drawing tests, elicits information regarding the child’s self-concept.

The HTP, though mostly given to children and adolescents, is appropriate for anyone over the age of three.

Critical Evaluation

The major criticism of projective techniques is their lack of objectivity. Such methods are unscientific and do not objectively measure attitudes in the same way as a Likert scale.

There is also the ethical problem of deception as often the person does not know that their attitude is actually being studied when using projective techniques.

The advantages of such projective techniques of attitude measurement are that they are less likely to produce socially desirable responses, the person is unlikely to guess what is being measured and behavior should be natural and reliable.


Buck, J. N. (1948). The HTP test. Journal of Clinical psychology.

Imuta, K., Scarf, D., Pharo, H., & Hayne, H. (2013). Drawing a Close to the Use of Human Figure Drawings as a Projective Measure of Intelligence. PLoS ONE, 8(3).

Osgood, C.E,  Suci, G., & Tannenbaum, P. (1957). The Measurement of Meaning. University of Illinois Press, 1

Olivia Guy-Evans

BSc (Hons), Psychology, MSc, Psychology of Education

Associate Editor for Simply Psychology

Olivia Guy-Evans is a writer and associate editor for Simply Psychology. She has previously worked in healthcare and educational sectors.

Saul Mcleod, PhD

Educator, Researcher

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education.