Carl Jung’s Word Association Test

January 31, 2019
Carl Jung's word association test may be able to reveal a great deal about the subconscious. New research shows that words do matter.

Carl Jung’s word association test is one of the most fascinating psychological assessments. It’s based on the idea that your subconscious is sometimes capable of controlling conscious will. As such, a single word can unleash past traumas or reveal unresolved internal conflicts.

This instrument was widely accepted for several decades. Experts used it in a broad range of contexts. Nevertheless, we should mention that this is a projective test. Thus, experts must use it along with other resources, assessments, and interviews to reach clearer and more precise conclusions.

Carl Jung created the word association test in the middle of the 20th century to unravel the subconscious. Jung wanted to understand its manifestations and find appropriate channels to analyze it. This would further allow experts to understand it and, ultimately, to bring those problems that hinder the patient’s freedom and well-being to light.

The technique couldn’t be easier. The test administrator says a word to the patient. Then, the patient must respond with the first word that comes to mind. Experts claim that the stimulant concepts tend to almost always drag up emotional burdens.

In addition, the therapist must analyze the physical and emotional responses. Once the test is finished, they’ll then interpret these together with the 100 words. Despite the fact that this test is over a century old, it’s still considered relatively valid.

Words in the word association test.

Carl Jung’s word association test: Objectives, characteristics, and applications

At first glance, it might seem like nothing more than a game to most people. The test consists of someone saying a word and the other responding with the first thing that pops into their mind.

However, it goes beyond just the verbal response. The therapist must also pay attention to the physiological reaction to the stimulant word. As you might be able to see from this description, Jung’s word association test is based on a foundation of different theoretical strands.

The conscious mind and pain points

At the beginning of his career, Carl Gustav Jung worked in the Burghölzli Psychiatric Hospital of the University of Zurich. He worked under Eugen Bleuler. You may remember that Bleuler established many of the concepts we use today in the fields of psychology and psychiatry.

Jung began to study trauma and complexes. According to him, one way to understand them and bring them to light was through dreams. They could also be brought forth through active imagination or fantasy. During his daily work with patients, he discovered that certain words and expressions acted as stimulating impulses on the unconscious mind.

One method of bringing this activation about and achieving contact with the psychological universe of trauma, fears, and conflicts was to evoke a group of key words. In order to test this theory, he developed the word association test.

How do therapists apply it?

Woman with head replaced by a cloud.

First of all, Jung made it clear that this test isn’t useful for everyone. It’s not good for people who resist it excessively or for those who don’t take the test seriously. Patients who don’t have an adequate control of their language faculties won’t benefit from it either. This last category includes people who may have language troubles due to old age, comprehension difficulties, neurological problems, development deficits, or other issues.

The test consists in presenting 100 stimulant words to the patient. When faced with each word, the patient must say out loud the first thing that comes to their mind. They should do this quickly and automatically.

The therapist writes down the term and then has to pay attention to other factors. This includes the time it takes to give the response, the level of discomfort, and the patient’s facial expression. Posture, silences, and repetition of the stimulant word may also be significant.

Reliability of Carl Jung’s word association

Carl Jung discovered that this instrument was excellent for family therapy. When he used it in these situations, he observed similar response patterns. This allowed him to identify the origin of multiple problems.

Jung himself abandoned this test as his interest in experiment psychiatry grew a short time later. Nevertheless, professionals kept using this test until 2005. Now, it’s only used in Jungian therapy programs or as a complementary projective technique.

A man standing and staring at his own brain.

In 2013, Dr. Leon Petchkovsky undertook an interesting study on the topic. Through magnetic resonance techniques, he showed that the words from Jung’s word association test generated very revealing neurological responses in people. Mirror neurons were activated when people heard words such as father, family, abuse, fear, child, etc.

There was also some brain activity in areas such as the amygdala, the insula, the hippocampus, and others. The results were very striking in people with post-traumatic stress.

All of this evidence shows us that words evoke emotions, memories, and thoughts we often tend to ignore. Despite the fact that many people criticize Jung’s word association test, it’s still a relevant resource that several studies support.

Miller, D. B. (2001). A normative study for the word association test among college students. Dissertation Abstracts International: Section B: The Sciences and Engineering.

Ruff, R. M., Light, R. H., Parker, S. B., & Levin, H. S. (1996). Benton controlled Oral Word Association Test: Reliability and updated norms. Archives of Clinical Neuropsychology. https://doi.org/10.1016/0887-6177(95)00033-X

Patterson, J. (2011). Controlled Oral Word Association Test. In Encyclopedia of Clinical Neuropsychology. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-0-387-79948-3_876

Ross, T. P., Calhoun, E., Cox, T., Wenner, C., Kono, W., & Pleasant, M. (2007). The reliability and validity of qualitative scores for the Controlled Oral Word Association Test. Archives of Clinical Neuropsychology. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.acn.2007.01.026

Petchkovsky, L. (2017). Advances in functional brain imaging technology and developmental neuro-psychology: their applications in the Jungian analytic domain. Journal of Analytical Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1111/1468-5922.12320