The “situational test” is generally viewed as the Gold Standard for psychological assessment.  As a general rule, the closer a test to the actual behavior to be predicted, the more accurate is extrapolation from the test.  As a general rule, these are “situational” tests. For example, to predict how an army soldier might behave in a leadership role in a combat situation, simulate a combat situation and put the soldier in charge.

Tests which at first appearance do not seem situational in fact are situational because they mimic situational requirements. For example, achievement tests often are directly comparable to tests in school, so these tests predict school performance on academic and qualification tests, like those used by Civil Service.  However, such tests bear only an “abstract relation” to real world performance, since performance in the real world requires many additional skills not tapped by an achievement test. The psychiatric interview is a situational test to the extent that the respondent must interact with a socially privileged designee (the psychiatrist, psychologist, or other qualified diagnostician) in a “rational” manner. The respondent’s behavior during the interview is presumed characteristic of behavior in analogous situations. During the interview, the quality of interaction and cogency of response are exceptionally important for outcome.  Generalization to behavior outside the psychiatric interview requires caution since the “real world” involves interactions of many types, not just to authority figures. Therefore not all situational tests are “concrete” in the sense of observation in the workplace, but depend upon socially and institutionally defined assumptions and criteria.

Free Association and the Inner World

Situational tests that apply to the external world are easier to devise than tests that apply to the inner world.  Assessment of inner processes requires some sample of inner processes. A classical approach to inner process is through free association whereby the individual reports the moment-to-moment thoughts, images, feeling, ideas, and sensations. This is perhaps the purest form of access to the inner world, but requires respondent trust, cooperation, and capacity for inner-observation. These conditions are difficult to meet in initial assessment or not possible because the respondent lacks skill for inner observation as is commonly true with children.

The Rorschach and Thematic Apperception Test

In part, the popularity of the Rorschach and Thematic Apperception Test (TAT) may be explained because these tests are a proxy for inner processes. Perception of inkblots provides a window into how an individual frames ambiguous images; and narration of story-lines to emotionally provocative pictures suggests schemes individuals might apply to life.

Yet unlike free association which provides real-time sequencing of thought, images, ideas, and sensations, both the Rorschach and the untimed TAT furnish “products”. In the case of the Rorschach, the products are percepts; and in the case of the TAT, narrative stories. Real-time change and pattern are not attended.

The Music Apperception Test

Free association provides a unique access to the inner world of perception, imagery, and feeling. Among psychological tests, the Music Apperception Test (MAT) elicits a close approximation to this intimate process. Music is connected to feeling and movement. The instruction to “tell a story to the music” invites a rich associative process that includes feelings, images, sensations, and story-line.  Since MAT compositions are written to evoke different emotions, the associative process is guided by different action tendencies designed to correspond to basic patterns of individual (and human) response.

At the same time, Responses are recorded in real-time, and so the MAT supplies a record analogous to free association. Real-time recording permits evaluation of quickness (latency), fluency, pace of speech, attentiveness to changes in music, change of content, alternation of story and imagery, evasiveness, and defense. Recorded responses comprise a window into inner process.

The large majority of respondents perceive the MAT as an enjoyable task and so cooperation is readily forthcoming with adults, adolescents, and children.  The MAT provokes free association guided by music and furnishes an alternative to traditional tests of inner process and experience.

Leland van den Daele


Leland van den Daele

Leland van den Daele, PhD, ABPP, is author of the Music Apperception Test. He is a psychoanalyst and Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies, San Francisco, CA.

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