Projective Tests in Psychological Assessment – The Sentence Completion Test

Dr. Donna L. Roberts
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Goldberg (1965) noted that incomplete sentences tests were used for psychological analysis as early as 1897 by Ebbinghaus. As with several of the projective tests, sentence completion tests were originally used to measure intellectual or other cognitive abilities (Goldberg, 1965). However, once projective tests became popular in the mid-1900s, incomplete sentences became widely used to assess personality as well.

Lubin and colleagues (1971) found that sentence completion tests ranked as the ninth most frequently used psychological test. More recently, Piotrowski and Keller (1989) and Watkins and colleagues (1995) found that sentence completion methods ranked sixth and fourth, respectively, in terms of frequency.

Sentence completion tests are straightforward, direct and easy to administer. Items consist of sentence stems (e.g., “I feel ____”, “If only ____”, “My mother____”, “My greatest fear is ____”). They are presented in written form to examinees, who simply complete each sentence, writing their answer in the space provided. Several standard sentence completion tests are available. Sets of the standardized sentences have been developed for use with college students, psychiatric patients, and military recruits (Goldberg, 1965). In addition, clinical psychologists may develop their own sentences for use with specialized populations.

The most widely used and well documented sentence completion test is Julian Rotter's Incomplete Sentences Blank (ISB) (Rotter & Rafferty, 1950). The ISB consists of 40 sentence stems. Each response is scored along a 7-point continuum, with a neutral midpoint and three degrees of conflict (unhealthy) and positive (healthy) responses. The sum score over 40 items is used as an index of general adjustment. According to Rotter and Rafferty (1950), the ISB has high reliability (inter-rater reliability over 0.90 and internal consistency over 0.80).

In addition, Rotter and Rafferty reported that the ISB had adequate validity, as determined by significant correlations with other measures of personality traits and emotional problems. Although Rotter's ISB has shown substantial reliability, critics argue that the test is limited by its reliance on a single score (Goldberg, 1965). In addition, the test has been criticized as being a self-report test, rather than a true projective test (Goldberg, 1965). As such, the factors that limit self-report tests may also apply to the ISB.
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Goldberg, P. A. (1965) A Review of Sentence Completion Methods In Personality Assessment, Journal of Projective Techniques and Personality Assessment, 29:1, 12-45, DOI: 10.1080/0091651X.1965.10120175

Lubin, B., Wallis, R. R., & Paine, C. (1971). Patterns of psychological test usage in the United States: 1935-1969. Professional Psychology, 2(1), 70–74.

Piotrowski, C., & Keller, J. W. (1989). Psychological testing in outpatient mental health facilities: A national study. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 20(6), 423–425.

Rotter, J. B. & Rafferty, J. E. (1950). Manual of The Rotter Incomplete Sentences. San Antonio, TX: Psychological Association.

Watkins, C. E., Campbell, V. L., Nieberding, R. & Hallmark, R. (1995). Contemporary practiceof psychological assessment by clinical psychologists. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 26: 54-60.

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Writer and university professor researching media psych, generational studies, addiction psychology, human and animal rights, and the intersection of art and psychology.


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