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Journal of Personality Assessment

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Toward a Process-Based Framework for Classifying

Personality Tests: Comment on
Robert F. Bornstein

Derner Institute of Advanced Psychological Studies, Adelphi University

Published online: 05 Dec 2007.

To cite this article: Robert F. Bornstein (2007): Toward a Process-Based Framework for Classifying Personality Tests: Comment
on , Journal of Personality Assessment, 89:2, 202-207
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00223890701518776


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Toward a Process-Based Framework for Classifying

Personality Tests: Comment on Meyer
and Kurtz (2006)
Robert F. Bornstein

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Derner Institute of Advanced Psychological Studies

Adelphi University

Meyer and Kurtz (2006) argued that the longstanding psychological test labels objective and
projective have outlived their usefulness, and invited further work focusing on alternative
terms for these measures. This Comment describes a framework for classifying personality
tests based on the psychological processes that occur as people respond to test stimuli. Because
an attribution process is involved in responding to both types of measures, those instruments
formerly called objective tests are labeled self-attribution tests, and those formerly classified as projective tests are labeled stimulus-attribution tests. The possibility of extending
the process-based framework beyond personality, to psychological tests in general, is also
discussed. Clinical and empirical implications of a process-based framework are considered.

Meyer and Kurtz (2006) argued persuasively that the longstanding psychological test labels objective and projective have outlived their usefulness, for two reasons. First,
these labels are misleading. As Meyer and Kurtz noted, objective tests hardly can be considered objective measures of
the psychological constructs they purport to assess; on the
contrary, scores on these tests are affected by myriad threats
to external validity, including respondent bias, subtle context/setting effects, and scorer error (Allard, Butler, Faust, &
Shea, 1995; Masling, 2002). Moreover, evidence supporting
the role of projection in shaping responses to projective
tests is inconclusive at best (Exner, 1989; Weiner, 2003);
extant data suggest only that a projection-like dynamic may
influence certain types of responses to ambiguous test stimuli
under certain limited circumstances (Bornstein, 2007).
The terms objective and projective are not only scientifically inaccurate, but problematic from a professional
standpoint as well. As Meyer and Kurtz (2006) pointed out,
the term objective carries with it an array of unwarranted
positive connotations, seeming to imply objectivity in prediction when in fact the term refers only to the mechanical
nature of test scoring. Conversely, because of its association
with Freudian theory and a plethora of flawed Rorschach
writings that have appeared over the decades, the term projective has acquired such a negative halo that even selective
and biased critiques of the validity of projective tests are
readily accepted by members of the professional community
(see, e.g., Wood, Nezworski, & Stejskal, 1996).

Meyer and Kurtz (2006) offered a range of alternative

labels to replace the terms objective and projective, concluding their editorial by inviting further work on the topic.
This Comment contributes to that ongoing effort by outlining a framework for classifying personality tests based on the
psychological processes that take place during testing (i.e.,
the cognitive and affective dynamics that occur as the testee
perceives, evaluates, and responds to test stimuli).


Because an attribution process is involved in responding to
both types of measures, what formerly were known as objective tests might better be labeled self-attribution tests; what
traditionally have been called projective tests are more accurately labeled stimulus-attribution tests. In the following
sections I describe key features of these two types of tests in
the context of a process-based framework.1

1 I use the term attribution in its broadest form here, not only to denote the
causal inferences that people draw regarding various internal experiences
and external events (Buehner & McGregor, 2006), but also to include the
neurocognitive mechanisms through which people automatically attribute
meaning to stimuli whose purpose and identity are unclear (see Kensinger
& Schacter, 2006).


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Self-Attribution Tests


to that item even in the absence of anger-related memories if

the goal is to appear unhealthy rather than healthy.)

Instruments that traditionally have been identified as objective tests (e.g., the NEO Personality Inventory; Costa &
McCrae, 1985) typically take the form of questionnaires
wherein people are asked to (1) acknowledge whether or
not each of a series of trait-descriptive statements is true of
them; or (2) rate the degree to which these statements describe
them accurately. As McClelland, Koestner, and Weinberger
(1989) pointed out, such measures assess self-attributed
traits, motives, emotions, and need statescharacteristics
that a person acknowledges as being representative of his or
her day-to-day functioning and experience. Thus, these measures reasonably may be described as self-attribution tests.
In responding to self-attribution test items people typically turn their attention inward to determine if a given test
statement captures some aspect of their feelings, thoughts,
motives, or behaviors. Given the dynamics of memory and
memory distortion, coupled with peoples reliance on various
judgment heuristics to make decisions regarding self-relevant
events and experiences (Loftus & Davis, 2006; Schwarz
et al., 1991) however, self-attribution test scores will not necessarily yield accurate information regarding trait-related behaviors and experiences. Moreover, given recent research on
content nonresponsiveness (e.g., random or markedly acquiescent responding) it is clear that mostbut not alltestees
genuinely attempt to engage in and respond to these test
items via an introspective process (see Gallen & Berry, 1996;
Graham, 2000).
Self-attribution tests may be further divided into two categories: those wherein the person is asked to judge the applicability of a test item describing a longstanding pattern,
and those wherein they are asked to judge the applicability of a test item describing behavior or experiencing in the
here-and-now. For the most part trait-focused measures (e.g.,
the trait version of Spielbergers [1989] State-Trait Anxiety Inventory [STAI]) involve retrospection, whereas statefocused measures (e.g., the state version of the STAI) involve introspection aimed at elucidating current, ongoing
Although responses to self-attribution tests typically begin
with introspection (and sometimes retrospection), another,
very different processdeliberate self-presentationoften
follows. Consider how a person might respond to the statement, I often have difficulty controlling my anger. Even if
one can recall numerous instances of angry outbursts, one still
might choose to respond No to that item to present oneself in
a positive light. (Conversely, one might choose to respond Yes

Measures that require people to interpret ambiguous stimuli

may be characterized as stimulus-attribution tests, because
regardless of whether one is confronted with an inkblot and
asked What might this be? or with a drawing or painting
and asked to describe the events depicted thereinthe fundamental task is to attribute meaning to a stimulus that can
be interpreted in multiple ways. This attribution process occurs in much the same way as the attributions that each of us
makes dozensperhaps hundredsof times each day as we
navigate the ambiguities of the social world (e.g., when we
attempt to interpret our friends failure to greet us as we pass
on the street; see Bornstein, 2007, for a detailed discussion
of this attribution process).3
Does the stimulus-attribution label suggest that projection
is never involved in responding to ambiguous test stimuli
like inkblots? Not at all. First, it is important to recognize
that all projections are in fact attributions. This is true regardless of whether one ascribes to the traditional Freudian
view (which conceptualizes projection as a mechanism for
disavowing unwanted traits, thoughts, and emotions; Freud,
1896/1962), a contemporary psychodynamic view (which
conceptualizes projection as a method of avoiding responsibility for negative events and protecting self-esteem; Cramer,
2000), or the socialcognitive view (which conceptualizes
projection as a cognitive distortion wherein the degree to
which others share ones views is overestimated; Newman,
Duff, & Baumeister, 1997). When a person concludes in the
absence of compelling evidence that their boss dislikes them,
their neighbor is out to get them, or their extreme political
beliefs actually are shared by many, that person is engaging in an attribution (or, more accurately, a misattribution)
Note that all these inaccurate inferences reasonably might
be labeled projections. They are, but they are also attributions,
and in this context it is useful to recognize that attribution is
a broader and more encompassing term than projection. All
projections represent attributions, but not all attributions (or
misattributions) are necessarily projections.
Finally, as is true of self-attribution tests, responses to
stimulus-attribution tests often are modified by peoples efforts to present themselves in a positive or negative light.
As Exner (1991) and Weiner (2003) pointed out, people typically generate many more Rorschach responses than they

2 In lieu of asking the respondent to report longstanding behavior or

current functioning, some self-attribution test items ask the respondent to
speculate regarding attitudes, abilities, or preferences (e.g., I would make a
good leader, I would rather be a physician than an attorney). With respect
to psychological process these are more closely aligned with trait than state
test items.

3 In conceptualizing the psychological processes that occur as people

respond to stimulus-attribution tests it is important to note that responses to
ambiguous test stimuli are not determined exclusively (or even primarily)
by personality characteristics of the testee but by stimulus characteristics as
well, and it is possible to study empirically the impact of stimulus pull on
responses to stimulus-attribution test items (Weiner, 2003).

Stimulus-Attribution Tests



ultimately verbalize; deliberate self-presentation (including

censorship of certain percepts) limits the number and type of
responses articulated. The same is true of responses to other
stimulus-attribution tests. Moreover, given the demand characteristics of most psychological testing situations, this censorship represents an appropriate self-presentation strategy
and a positive prognostic sign. Although research indicates
that it is more difficult to deliberately fake ones answers
to stimulus-attribution tests than self-attribution tests (Bornstein, Rossner, Hill & Stepanian, 1994), self-presentation
clearly plays a role in shaping responses to both types of

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A process-based framework is useful in contrasting the mental activities that occur as people respond to self-attribution
and stimulus-attribution tests; this framework may be useful for classifying other types of psychological tests as well.
Table 1 extends the process-based framework to the broader
array of assessment tools used by psychologists today, grouping these instruments into six categories based on the mental activities and behaviors involved in responding to these
Thus, in addition to self-attribution and stimulusattribution tests there exist performance-based tests, which
include the Bender (1938) Visual-Motor Gestalt Test (when
used as a neurological screen), the Implicit Association Test
(Nosek, Greenwald, & Banaji, 2005), and various intelligence and neuropsychological measures. Within the processbased framework performance-based tests are distinguished
from stimulus-attribution tests because different processes
and tasks are involved, a distinction not captured by current test labeling approaches (see Meyer et al., 2001; Meyer
& Kurtz, 2006). Whereas performance-based tests require
the respondent to perform structured behavioral tasks (e.g.,
copy figures from cards, assemble jigsaw puzzles) with performance evaluated according to predefined scoring criteria, respondents scores on stimulus-attribution tests like the
Rorschach and Thematic Apperception Test (TAT; Murray,
1943) are derived from open-ended descriptions and elaborations of test stimuli.
In the process-based framework constructive tests also
are distinguished from stimulus-attribution tests, because
constructive tests require respondents to createliterally
to constructnovel products (e.g., drawings, written descriptions) with minimal guidance from the examiner and no
test stimulus physically present. Machovers (1949) Drawa-Person (DAP) test would fall into this category, as would
Blatt, Chevron, Quinlan, Schaffer, and Weins (1988) measure of Qualitative and Structural Dimensions of Object

Representations (QSDOR), which asks the respondent to

generate descriptions of key introjects (e.g., mother, father,
self, God) that are then scored along various structural and
content-based dimensions. Put another way, in contrast to
stimulus-attribution tests such as the Rorschach and TAT
wherein testees describe stimuli whose essential properties
were determined a priori and which are physically present
during testing, in constructive tests the stimulus exists only
in the mind of the respondent (e.g., a maternal or paternal
Continuing through Table 1, observational measures (as
often are used to quantify behavior in hospitals, classrooms, shopping malls, and other settings) may be distinguished from informant-report tests (wherein data are
derived from knowledgeable informants descriptions or
ratings). Although in both cases judgments are made by
an individual other than the person being evaluated, different processes are involved in generating these judgments, with observational measures based on direct observation and immediate recording of behavior, and informantreport tests based on informants retrospective, memoryderived conclusions regarding characteristics of the target

In discussing limitations in the current terminology used
to classify personality tests Meyer and Kurtz (2006) raised
the possibility thatbecause any framework for grouping
psychological tests into categories is likely to be less than
perfectperhaps assessment psychologists should simply
identify each test by name and forego any attempt to create an
overarching classification scheme. Although identifying tests
by name rather than by category has the advantage of eliminating ambiguity that might arise when tests are grouped and
labeled, a process-based framework for classifying psychological tests offers several advantages in this regard.

4 Certain types of measures (e.g., Q-sorts) may be included in more than

one category, depending upon whether they involve self-description (i.e.,
self-attribution), or description by a familiar other (in which case they represent informant reports). Similarly, most archival data can be classified
either as a form of observational measure (if data initially were based on
direct observation, e.g., nurses notes of patient behavior), or as a form
of informant report (if data consist of the summary conclusions or judgments of knowledgeable others, e.g., end-of-semester evaluations provided
by teachers or academic advisors). Finally, whereas structured interviews
represent self-attribution tests (akin to verbal questionnaires; see Rogers,
2003), unstructured and semistructured interviews whose focus is determined largely by the clinicians inferences and assessment goals are best
considered techniques for gathering and synthesizing clinical data, not as
formal psychological tests.



A Process-Based Framework for Classifying Psychological Tests
Test category





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Key characteristics

Representative tests

Test scores reflect the degree to which the person attributes

various traits, feelings, thoughts, motives, behaviors, or
experiences to him- or herself.
Person attributes meaning to an ambiguous stimulus, with
attributions determined in part by stimulus characteristics and
in part by the persons cognitive style, motives, emotions, and
need states.
Test scores are derived from persons unrehearsed performance
on one or more structured tasks designed to tap on-line
behavior and responding.
Generation of test responses requires person to create or construct
a novel image or written description within parameters defined
by the tester.
Test scores are derived from observers ratings of persons
behavior exhibited in vivo, or in a controlled setting.
Test scores are based on knowledgeable informants ratings or
judgments of a persons characteristic patterns of behavior and

The Process-Based Framework Facilitates Test

Score Integration
Because the process-based framework makes explicit the
mental activities that occur as people respond to test stimuli, this framework facilitates meaningful integration of
scores on different types of measures in the clinical setting. For example, studies have shown that changes in depressive symptoms affect both self-attributed and stimulusattributed dependency scores, whereas more minor variations in mood states affect stimulus-attributedbut not
self-attributeddependency (Bornstein, Bowers, & Bonner,
1996; Hirschfeld, Klerman, Clayton, & Keller, 1983). It may
be that the increased cognitive load (and diminished attentional capacity) associated with a significant elevation in
depression is sufficient to alter self-attributed dependency
scores while more minor variations in mood state are not.
Conversely, laboratory evidence suggests that the manner
in which the test is introduced has a significant impact
on self-attributedbut not stimulus-attributeddependency
(Bornstein et al., 1994).
Thus, in both research and clinical settings the processbased framework can help elucidate the dispositional and
situational factors that lead to test score inconsistencies, suggesting variables worthy of further study as we seek to understand the processes that dissociate scores on tests that ostensibly assess the same underlying construct (see also Bornstein,
2002, for examples of other moderating variables).
The Framework Helps Link Personality
Assessment to Other Domains of Psychological
By specifying the mental activities that occur as people respond to different types of psychological tests the process-

NEO Personality Inventory

Structured Clinical Interview for DSM-IV Personality
Rorschach Inkblot Method
Thematic Apperception Test

Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale

Bender Visual-Motor Gestalt Test
Draw-a-Person Test
Qualitative and Structural Dimensions of Object Relations
Spot Sampling
Behavior Trace Analysis
Informant-Report version of the NEO Personality Inventory

based framework helps link personality assessment to research in other areas of psychological science (e.g., cognitive,
social). Only when assessment research is embedded in ideas
and findings from mainstream psychology can we evaluate
rigorously the external validity of our hypotheses and models by scrutinizing the fit of these hypotheses and models
with those of neighboring subfields. Psychologists in other
areas have often utilized concepts from assessment research
(e.g., internal reliability, discriminant validity) to improve
the psychometric properties of their tests and measures; the
process-based framework can help assessment psychologists
use findings from other subfields (e.g., the dynamics of implicit and explicit memory, the dispositional and contextual
variables that influence causal attributions) to understand
more completely the psychological processes that underlie
responses to different assessment tools.
Psychologists Are Going to Group and Label
Tests Anyway
People classify things into categories and assign labels to
these categories; it is one of many strategies we use to process, encode, and store information more efficiently. Regardless of whether these things consist of dogs, foods, works
of art, or modes of transportation, studies suggest that once
people have developed some degree of familiarity with the
members of a group they intuitively divide members of that
group into subgroups based on properties of the individual
group members (Corter & Gluck, 1992; Rosch, 1975).
Thus, if assessment psychologists did not derive overarching frameworks and terminologies for classifying psychological tests, those who use, study, or critique these tests
would do it anyway. In this respect it is better that an organizing framework be made explicit (and the logic underlying



the framework spelled out in detail) than that multiple contrasting frameworks and labels emerge in isolation among
different segments of the psychological community.

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The process-based framework readily suggests possibilities
for studies focusing on convergences and divergences between scores from tests in different categories (Bornstein,
2002); this framework also can form a conceptual foundation for intracategory test score comparisons (e.g., contrasts
of results from state versus trait measures of a motive or affect
state, comparisons of results produced by inkblot interpretations versus thematic storytelling). Such studies will not
only help clinicians and researchers understand the factors
that lead to divergences between findings obtained within
a particular test category, but also may create a context
for research exploring the range of situational and dispositional factors that combine to affect intracategory test score
Finally, it is worth noting that in certain respects the
process-based framework for classifying psychological tests
is analogous to the grouping of psychological syndromes into
overarching categories (e.g., mood disorders, anxiety disorders, personality disorders) in the DSM-IV. Although both
organizing schemes are imperfect, and one could argue that
certain tests (or syndromes) should be categorized or labeled
differently, in both cases the organizing framework facilitates clinical work and empirical study. Like the grouping of
syndromes in the DSM series, the proposed system for classifying psychological tests will evolve over time, improving as
new information emerges regarding various assessment tools.

I thank Violeta Bianucci, Daniel Freeman, Mark Hilsenroth,
Michelle Sonnenberg, and all those who participated in the
JPA review process for their helpful comments on earlier
versions of this article.

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Robert F. Bornstein
Derner Institute of Advanced Psychological Studies
212 Blodgett Hall
Adelphi University
Garden City, NY 11530
Email: bornstein@adelphi.edu
Received January 23, 2007
Revised June 15, 2007