Traveling the Royal Road: A Personal Encounter With the Word Association Test
By Drew H. Smith

Jung's Word Association TestMy mind was elsewhere. I was driving as if on autopilot, headed down a familiar road, one I’d traveled hundreds of times before. But this time the road was taking me somewhere new, somewhere deeper than before. My nerves seemed to sense my proximity to her home, like a dog headed to the vet. I breathed deep and pulled into her driveway. The frigid air blew shards of snow against my face as I walked to her front door. The road had brought me to my destination, but my real journey was just beginning.

In his lectures at the Tavistock Clinic, C. G. Jung (1968) addressed an eager and engaged audience with his exciting application of word association tests. While explaining the simple procedure of speaking a word to a patient, recording their reply word, and timing the space that hangs in between the two, he says something quite profound. He talks of the original intent of this “test”—it was meant to study mental associations—and explained this proved to be too idealistic. But what could be studied, however, were the mistakes. Jung said, “You ask a simple word that a child can answer, and a highly intelligent person cannot reply. Why? That word has hit on what I call a complex” (p. 53). Complexes, as defined by Jung (1972), are fragments of the psyche that have split off from the whole due to traumatic events or incongruences experienced throughout one’s life. These are typically highly charged emotionally, and have a relatively high degree of autonomy (p. 121).

These two items, the association test and the complex, are intricately tied together. A “litmus test” for identifying complexes, the word association test (WAT), also known as the Association Experiment (AE) or Association Test (AT)—I shall use these terms interchangeably—is a powerful tool for moving beyond the conscious and into the unconscious of the individual. Herein lies its beauty. Similar to the interpretation of dreams or images within psychoanalysis, the WAT gives the analyst another tool to help bring the unconscious to the surface for the patient, and reveal for the patient new aspects of his or her inner landscape. As the WAT exposes the complexes for the individual, so the ego is faced with a choice of how to proceed. Complexes are inescapable, woven into the human condition, and deeply personal. However, if the goal of the individual is to integrate the complexes into an evolving consciousness, the ego will begin to expand and become more flexible. This is the telos, the goal of the complex (Shalit, 2002, p. 26), and the arché, its beginning, is the WAT.

She invites me in and I remove my snow-laden shoes. We ascend the narrow staircase up to her office, and as I turn the corner at the top of the steps, my eyes are gripped by a myriad of figurines lining the walls. Literally thousands of them, all types, all sizes, all colors and forms, begging to be seen, begging to be encountered. Each one seems imbued with its own story, and just waiting to play in the sand. We sit at a tiny handmade desk and she lights a single taper candle. We talk a bit about the holidays, about my son’s first Christmas, about her recent illness.

Meanwhile my head seems not quite there, not quite present. Perhaps I am a little nervous, or maybe a bit unsure of what’s about to transpire. We talk more about complexes and she offers me a metaphor for how they come to be. She draws lines onto a 3×5 card, four horizontally across four vertically, to form a grid. She explains that our psyche is like a fisherman’s net and everything we experience passes through this net. In each location where one line in the net intersects another is an archetypal node. As our experiences pass through this net, many things fall right through. Yet those highly emotional moments, the supercharged events, are magnetically attracted to these crisscrossed intersections. Pulled in by the archetype’s lure, the events gather around the junctures and begin to tightly wrap round the node, creating a bundle of like experiences. This clustered knot is a complex. The experiences we have continue to flow through the net, and the archetypes continue to attract, building up around them. The archetype is the essence or nucleus of the complex—it gives the complex form, structure, and meaning. Analysis then is the process of slowly unwinding the experiences from its tight coil around the core, and reflecting on each event, each emotion, and each association the experience yields. To better understand oneself and the personal lived experiences is the ultimate goal. And here is where the WAT can be so helpful.

Sir Francis Galton (1879) is credited as the first to have scientific interest in word associations. Looking at the operations of the mind, he set out to prove that ideas present themselves through an association, and that these associations could not be conjured up (n.p.). Others throughout the late 1800s were showing interest in this association test. Franz Riklin, a Swiss psychiatrist who would later become the first secretary of the International Psychoanalytic Association, came to the Burghölzli Hospital in Zurich after having worked on variations of Galton’s word association experiment. Jung soon took over Riklin’s project and, using the idea of Freud’s free association experiments, began to refine the word association test by incorporating aspects of the temporal into the results. He became increasingly interested not only in the response words the patients replied with, but also the time in which it took them to respond. Jung began to recognize how the amount of time between the initial stimulus word and the response word differed between individuals. He noticed there was often something personally distressing, or a moment of hesitation was noted, with some of the responses to the stimulus word. With Riklin, Jung coined the term “complex.” With Eugen Bleuler’s help, Jung comprised a list of 156 stimulus words. This was later expanded to over 400 words, and was tested on everyone from epileptics to schizophrenics to hysterics, and others. This became Jung’s primary focus at Burghölzli between 1901 and 1904 (Bair, 2003, pp. 64-66).

My feet are chilly in the upper room, and I can’t help but be distracted by the figurines surrounding me, watching me. The taper candle sits on the desk, burning between us. She sits across from me, with paper, pencil, and stopwatch at the ready. Before we begin, she goes over the procedure with me. I already knew the procedure, however I feel a little more anxious than I imagined I would. Her explanation helped re-focus me, and remind me that I’ve got nothing to hide, that this isn’t a “test” per se and I began to relax a little. Fortunately, she explains, the test is no longer 400 words—or even 100 words. It has been reduced down to 61 stimulus words. “You can tell as much by 61 words as you can 100,” she says; plus, the process can be mentally exhausting. Fewer words help keep the test subject and the analyst a bit more fresh and able. The concept is easy enough: she will read the list of stimulus words, one after the other. For each of these words, I will respond back as quickly as possible, with the first word or image that comes to mind. I am to try and limit the reply to a single word if I can. She will record my response word, and also the time it takes to respond. She asks if I understand, to which I reply, “Yes.” And then we begin.

Verena Kast (1980), a training analyst at the C. G. Jung Institute and Professor of Psychology at the University of Zurich, wrote a marvelous little guidebook entitled “Das Assoziationsexperiment In Der Therapeutischen Praxis (The Association Experiment in Therapeutical Practice).” In it she gives very detailed steps on how to conduct the Association Experiment, also known as the Association Test, and some practical advice on setting the proper mood. One suggestion for this test’s use is in activating the unconscious. If too little unconscious material is being brought into therapy by the patient, then the test is a way to safely tap into that material. If evaluating the results of the test is handled properly, it has a very “therapeutic effect” on the subject—either by relaxing them because unconscious and repressed material has finally been exhumed, or it has been stirred up, giving the therapist a good launching point for further analysis (p. 9).

Kast (1980) acknowledges that for the test subject, the idea of a “test” might, in and of itself, constellate a complex centered around school or taking a test. She encourages the analyst to create an atmosphere of relaxation as this may help counterbalance the anxiety. The room used to administer the test should be quiet and comfortable, and the experimenter and test subject sit facing each other. If necessary, a dry run can be done for the test subject, using some benign words that will not trigger the activation of a complex. When the subject is ready, the experimenter begins by speaking the stimulus word. The experimenter also begins to measure time with the stopwatch the moment he or she says either the first vowel or the first accentuate syllable of the stimulus word. Time measurement stops when the first letter of the response word is uttered. Time is measured in 1/5 of a second (pp. 9-10).

“Play,” she says.
“Child,” I reply.
Scribble scribble scribble.
Scribble scribble scribble.
“Free,” she says.
“Prison,” comes out of my mouth.

Jung (1968), speaking at Tavistock, recounts to the conference attendees that one use of the Association Test (AT) is in criminal cases. Back home in Zurich, Jung explains he is sometimes called on by the courts as a “last straw.”   He would structure the stimulus words to have direct correlation to the crime the subject is accused of committing. These key words are also clustered together within the AT to provide an intensified sensitizing effect on the unconscious emotions. When the AT is “put to a criminal” and he refuses to take it, he indicts himself because everyone will then know he is guilty. If he takes the test and is secretly guilty of the accused crime, he still indicts himself because his reactions/responses are all beyond the control of his will and therefore betray him (p.54). The key elements in the AT are both the response and the response time. Looking just at the response a story will emerge. Yet it is the response time that reveals how deep the story goes.

Jung recalls administering the test to a 35-year old man. This man, a “decent individual,” had extended response times when the stimulus word had anything to do with the crime in question (a stabbing). However, the individual was quite unaware to the fact he had such a prolonged emotional response. Words like knife, lance, to beat, pointed, and bottle all produced an extended response time, and the individual was totally oblivious to it. Jung was able to piece together what happened based both on the reaction words and reaction times. The individual was shocked at Jung’s deduction, and confessed the entire thing on the spot (p. 56).

“Car.” Stimulus word.
“Drive,” I respond.
“Make.” Another stimulus word.
“Cake,” I say.
“Friend,” she says.

I remain perfectly still throughout all of this. Having read Kast’s book prior to taking the test, I am fully conscious of my physical behavior, recognizing that even the slightest head tilt, shiver, or fidget is recorded and likely significant. I stare straight ahead, emotionless. I recognize a pattern emerging already—I’m replying to the stimulus word with many opposites or “clang” reactions, as Kast calls them. These are rhymes or quotations and seem to just float off my tongue. These responses seem rote. Why am I replying this way? I wonder already what’s made evident from my responses. I’m likely overthinking this, and thoughts about my reaction time race through my mind. Should I speed it up? Maybe I’m sounding too forced? It’s amazing how quickly the brain can think full sentences. It feels like an eternity between my reply and the next stimulus word. Too much empty time left available to ponder what word might be next.


We work our way through 61 stimulus words. It takes all of 10 minutes to complete this experiment. Next comes 20 minutes for recovery. I stand up and stretch, wander about the room and shrewdly return the gaze of the figurines that had been watching me since this all began. In the momentary silence I reflect on what just took place, trying to recall the word that gave me the most difficulty, the one that felt looming, that felt unanswerable, the one that took a full four-and-a-half seconds to answer, the word I had just responded to literally two minutes before—and my mind was blank. I finally break the silence in the room by asking where she collected all of these character tchotchkes. They are from all over, and she has more scattered across the globe—over 6,000 in her collection. When about 20 minutes had passed, we sit back down and she explains that this time, she will give me the stimulus words again, and I will try to tell her what my original response was. This is called the Reproduction.
Jung (1959/1990, p. 4) states that complexes are housed within the personal unconscious, and archetypes belong to the collective unconscious. However he later revises that concept and recognizes that complexes, too, exist within the collective unconscious. Whereas the personal complexes would be identified as a part of one’s own psyche, such as a soul, the collective complex would exhibit itself as something apart from the individual, something foreign, such as a spirit or zeitgeist (Jung, 1972, p. 312), able to hold an individual, a community, culture, or country within its grip. It is here we have a clearer understanding of the depth of power a complex may demonstrate, especially when arriving from the collective unconscious. This would be akin to “possession” and tend to be highly charged and powerfully mythic. They tend to cause an individual to lose all connection with reality or bring the group into a state of pathological extremism. One could argue this is what happened with Hitler and his rise to power and tyrannical damage to the Jews and the world. His complexes were not necessarily of the personal unconscious, but arose from the deeper collective. An example used by Jung is the disciples on the day of Pentecost—when they were filled with the Holy Spirit. Here we encounter a deeply mythic quality, but it is not a destructive possession (p. 315).

The Reproduction section of my test goes quickly. The analyst says that a higher number of accurate reproductions is an indicator of intelligence. I got 39, which seems to fall into this category. So I guess I’ve got that going for me. She reviews the responses and compares the times. This will help identify which response times are indicative of a complex. As she does some calculations, we sit and talk through the process. She intuitively asks me about a few of the associations. Some analysts will always go for the “loaded” words, but some of the less charged words can still be evocative. Sometimes the reason the analyst thinks I said what I said isn’t really the reason I said it. She begins by asking me about the associations I didn’t recall—she finds these most interesting. She makes a comment that there are several perseverations in my responses, meaning there seems to be a disturbance brought on by one word, that then carries across a few following words. Oftentimes these perseverations are time-related, and help to extend the response time. She also mentions my use of predicates, also known as stereotypies. This is when the same word is used three or more times, counting both the first and second trials, as a response word. “Like the word ‘Sad,'” she says. “You used it at least five times. Is that a common thread in your life?”

Kast (1980) breaks down various types of reactions and explains how to evaluate the test in general. To begin, the therapist will look at both form and content of the experiment. Form incorporates reaction time, the type of complex indicator most frequently causing a reaction, the recovery after a complex indicator, and the style of word association—factual or egocentric? For content, the therapist observes interesting reactions and responses to the stimulus word that require some explanation. Of course, the therapist will have a hypothesis regarding this connection, but it is merely that—a hypothesis.

She continues by listing several types of reactions that help us to categorize the interrelation and interpretation of the response words for the test subject. These are:
”¢      Prolonged response time
”¢      No reaction within 30 seconds
”¢      Lack of reproduction or false reproduction
”¢      Repetition, misunderstanding, or not understanding the stimulus word
”¢      Mimic, movement, or laughter
”¢      Stuttering or mispronunciation
”¢      “Clang” reactions—including rhymes or quotations
”¢      Disconnected reactions
”¢      Multi-word reactions or sentences
”¢      Neologisms, strong language or colloquialisms
”¢      Stereotypies
(Kast, 1980, pp. 11-15)

When looking through the subject’s test, all these factors must be considered as alienating only one factor will not allow the therapist or the subject to draw a valid conclusion. It is the total packaging of these factors that helps draw the complete picture.

We talk about my past, centering the conversation of the threads of sadness running through my life. We discuss my childhood, my parents’ divorce, memories of alienation and feelings of being alone, not just as a child, but also as an adult. This leads into conversations about other stereotypies showing up: Happy, Great, Shame, Tired, Foe. These threads run through my life and come through clearly in my replies. Her curiosity draws more of my story out of me and I feel comfortably exposed. Emotions feel pretty even-keeled as we talk, and in the back of my mind I keep wondering, “Why am I not feeling more strongly right now?” She articulates an observation that, even as she says it, begins to feel like a pebble in my shoe. It’s a feeling I cannot shake or walk off. She noticed during the test that I sat incredibly still. She remarked I showed very little affect, rarely did I even move the entire time. I just stared straight ahead, almost robotically.

We reach the end of our session with a question about one complex indicator—the word “Force.” This was, by far, the longest response time of them all. Almost a full five seconds. Not only that, but I failed to reproduce the response. It’s as if a complex hoisted a flag, began frantically waving it, yelling, “Here I am! Right here!” She asks me why I thought it took so long to answer and I cannot give a reason. She asks what images came to mind, and I reply, “None.” As I prepare to leave, to head home, she says to me, “You may dream tonight. We’ve stirred up a lot of your unconscious. Pay attention to your dreams.” That night, I dream of zombies.

Over a month goes by and once again I’m listening to the rhythmic vibrations of tires on asphalt; I’m cruising down that familiar road, headed back to go over the results of my Association Experiment. I’ve had time to think, to process, and to analyze my own experience with the test. I begin to realize that when I took the test, my life was scheduled full with compartmentalization. Indeed I was living life, and a damn good one, yet I was feeling very emotionally truncated at that time. My primary objective, day after day, was to get the most out of every second, squeeze in as much as possible, reach the deadlines, complete every task, until I finally lay down on the pillow and fall into dreamless sleep, night after night. I had structure and discipline and schedule, and any downtime I may have gained throughout the day was immediately replaced by the needs of my newborn son and my wife. Of course, this was not a bad thing—I’d waited over 14 years to experience the joys of having a child. But it began to dawn on me, built into my day there was no time to enjoy… me.

This dream of zombies, I guess you could say, is a recurring theme for me. Zombies tend to represent something non-thinking and non-feeling. And here they are, always chasing me and I am always running away. Their objective is to consume me, to assimilate me. There is no “leader” of the zombie horde—just a thoughtless primal drive to feed and kill. It is an instinctual movement, one foot in front of the other, moving only towards one goal. There is no sense of self, no attention to detail, to the beauty of the surroundings. The zombie is perpetually in a state of survival mode, living in ordered chaos. And then I see it. That’s me. I am Zombie. But I don’t want to be; my unconscious is warning me, “You’re going to get bit. You’re dangerously close to becoming one of the undead.” This realization hits me with a wallop and it explains why my affect was so unresponsive while taking the test, and why many of my response words were merely “clanging” and filled with stereotypies. It explains how I could hear the stimulus word “Make” and reply with “Cake.” Or respond to “Red” with “Blue.” Of deeper concern though was replying to the word “Love” with “Joy” but not able to reproduce the word “Joy”: instead I remember it as “Hate.”

Many of the incorrect reproductions I responded with were opposites of the original response word. This is indicative, according to the analyst, of some pretty powerful dark stuff that only comes out under stress. It’s as if my shadow side (positive or negative) tends to answer when under stress. Perhaps the initial response was my shadow side attempting to convey a certain aspect or persona throughout the test. Yet when it came time to remember the word, there was less stress, and the more authentic “me” was able to speak.

As she goes over some of the complex indicators, she observes a strong mother complex and father complex. This comes out in response words like “Ashamed” and “Pain,” and like responding to the stimulus word “Disappoint” with “Sad.” This is not shocking. Dieckmann (1996) states, “[E]very human being and hence every patient has both mother and father complexes. In the course of an analysis, both have to be worked on, made conscious, and worked through in all their subtleties to the extent possible” (p. 68). And of course, going into the test, I knew these would be present. However, not every answer necessarily indicates a complex. The numerous amounts of stereotypies within my replies are indicative of superficiality. But I believe this speaks back to my dreamworld obsession with zombies. They themselves are superficial, and it stands to reason this is why they visit me so often.

One surprising complex that this test exposed constellates around the theme of shame. This particular theme has been a work in progress for me throughout most of my life, and I’d assumed I had “handled” these issues, but it appears there’s still some experience wrapped around my archetypal node. What is that archetype? Well, perhaps there are several here. Shame is unconsciously linked to multiple stimulus words, like “Naked,” “Guilt,” and “Sin.” There is much knotted up in the nucleus of this complex, and I’m not sure I can reduce it down to one archetype at the core. The most obvious would be the darker, sinister, judging God archetype—the one ready to cast me out of Eden for my transgressions. But inherent in this God archetype are aspects of both the Mother and Father archetypes as well. Perhaps my mother and father complexes are more enmeshed within me than I had thought. Shame is very different from, but closely associated with, guilt. While guilt implies that the subject offends the object and that perhaps the subject has done something wrong and expects punishment from the object, shame implies a probability, and thus an expectation of complete desertion, of psychic annihilation (Hultberg, 1987, p. 163). Here, wrapped around shame like a blanket, is the knowledge that God, Mother, and Father all have the power to wipe me out of existence. Perhaps these three archetypes per se all work together as the perfect trifecta within my psyche.
Finally, the most shocking and mystifying part of this word association test comes down to the 38th and 60th stimulus words: Fear and Force. My response words were “Fate” and “Fear” respectively. And neither of the response words were properly recalled. Instead, I recalled “Foe” instead of “Fate,” and “Sad” instead of “Fear.” This speaks to something darker, hidden, something still not emotionally conscious, and buried deep. There is a complex here; I can smell it. But as of now, the unconscious has only given me a cairn along the road to mark the spot where something resides. Jacobi (1959) speaks to the complex recognized with the conscious mind. Here, it is known only intellectually and still maintains all its original power. There is no “feeling-tone” to this complex within the conscious mind. Yet the charge is definitely there. The ego can take four different attitudes: “total unconsciousness of its existence, identification, projection, or confrontation” (pp. 16-17). Only confrontation will lead to the ego’s ability to incorporate the complex and “come to grips” with it, allowing for some resolution. However at this point, my psyche must know I’m not ready for what lay buried beneath. This will come later, in due time.

When I am ready, perhaps in a few months, I will attempt this test again. After life normalizes, after I begin de-zombifying myself. I want to be present and alive, alert to the sounds, the smells, and the beauty that surrounds me. Until then, I will ask my psyche to reveal only what I can handle. My gut says I need to investigate this shame complex before I can face whatever is buried beneath “Fear” and “Force.” For now, they will remain a part of me, and I will greet them in dreams with active imagination. I will ask them to show me around, where they live, and see what these guides along my own royal road have to say. It’s all a process, walking this road. I wanted to take the word association test to better know myself and to see what complexes I had. Truth be told, I’ve always known myself; some days I just know myself more deeply and authentically than other days. And as for seeing what complexes I had, I’ve learned that it’s not I who have the complexes, but they are the ones who have me.


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Galton, F. (1879). Psychometric experiments. Retrieved February 28, 2014, from

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Jung, C. G. (1972). Psychological factors in human behavior. In G. Adler, M. Fordham, H. Read, & W. McGuire   (Eds.), The collected works of C.G. Jung (Vol. 8, pp. 114-125). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Kast, V. (1980). Excerpts in English from ‘Das assoziationsexperiment in der therapeutischen praxis’ (Irene Gad, Trans.). Fellback-Oeffingen, Germany: Bonz Verlag.

Meier, C. A. (1984). The unconscious in its empirical manifestations. Boston, MA: Sigo Press.

Shalit, E. (2002). The complex: Path of transformation from archetype to ego. Toronto, Canada: Inner City Books.


Author Note
Acknowledgement of assistance to Cynthia Cuthbertson
By day, Drew H. Smith works for a local business college in their online learning department, buried in lines of code, busy developing applications for their course management system. By night, he is buried in lines of depth psychology, working towards his Masters and Ph.D. in Jungian and Archetypal Studies at Pacifica Graduate Institute. He and his wife have one child, and live in metro Detroit.