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Jungian Word-Association Tests at Fault: Tony and Barry Buzan's Test
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dragon associations.
Different cultures, different dragon associations

Carl G. Jung studied mental associations to groups of related words (from a long list). You can do the same if you care. A list of words is given further down. But there seems to be a problem that may not have been recognised duly in the world of psychometry (psychological testing) yet: The brothers Tony and Barry Buzan state that the associations that people tie to words, become increasingly individualised with education and experience. In the light of this, maybe common word test do not take well enough into account that people respond in increasingly diversified ways as they grow older and wiser; the implications may undermine association tests of many kinds.

Now, with these observations as a basis you can go ahead and may very tentatively seek to unmask the quirks, if you find any. The method presented below is in current use in psychology, where terms differ abundantly. Jung used the method to infer personality traits (he called them inferiority "complexes"). I think we stick to the term quirks here. (EB, sv. "Word-association techniques")

From the History of Word-Tests

Sir Francis Galton had used a word-association test as early as 1884 in his ill-fated "anthropometric laboratory," focussing his attention on the nature of the response words, and their relationship to the stimulus words. Wundt used such a test in a similar way, and G. Aschaffenburg and F. Kramer also worked with word-association tests prior to Jung (Cohen 3) (5)

Freer Participation

You may let dreams have precedence - it is very Jungian.

The free association of the Freudian method, being extremely inefficient and tedious, is seldom used in Jungian analysis, where great attention is paid to dreams. ◊

TO BE sure what a single dream means, series of dreams, and trends noted in them, are needed for the analysis to proceed. The relationship of the dream to the dreamer is paramount and must take precedence over mere intellectual comparison of the dream to its historical antecedents: "Learn as much as you can about symbolism; then forget it all when you are analyzing a dream." (Cohen 39) ◊

Besides, in his use of Wundt's word-association test, Jung found that uneducated subjects, as well as defective ones, were less superficial and more conditioned by their inner thoughts in their responses, than educated subjects (Cohen 4).

THE ULTIMATE criterion for an interpretation is the satisfaction of the person to whom it pertains. If it "rings true" for him, it has value. Thus, more than one interpretation may be fruitful. (Cohen 39] ◊ 

Stimulus Word List

IN WORD-ASSOCIATION tests the following words are read to the respondent. One is to take notes of long pauses, blanks, great deviations and signs of suffering that may appear - perhaps triggered by some words. The given deviations are next looked into, according to one's ability and stamina, boldness, etc.

Administering a word-association test is relatively uncomplicated; a list of words is presented one at a time to the subject who is asked to respond with the first word or idea that comes to mind. Many of the stimulus words may appear to be emotionally neutral (e.g., building, first, tree); of special interest are words that tend to elicit personalized reactions (e.g., mother, hit, love). The amount of time the subject takes before beginning each response and the response itself are used in efforts to analyze a word association test. The idiosyncratic, or unusual, nature of one's word-association responses may be gauged by comparing them to standard published tables of the specific associations given by large groups of other people. - Encyclopedia Britannica, s.v. "Word-association techniques".

However, one should not read too much into the surface probings (cf. the words on dreams above). And averaged standard tables may not be too helpful anyway: the brothers Tony and Barry Buzan have shown how very idiosyncratic or personalised many word-associations really are. In a study they found much variance in the associations to many common words.

Buzan and Buzan's Association Exercise

Happiness word-assocation exercise
A key word in an oval, with ten lines branching out from it - ready for free associations. [Adjusted from a figure in Buzan and Buzan 1995, 64.]

In a group exercise that strongly resemble how the later Jung welded ideas and wrote himself - his method for interpreting dreams, in fact - the Buzan brothers write the word 'happiness' in a lying oval on a sheet of paper and let ten "tentacles" branch out from it. All members of the group are to fill in quickly, and without pausing to choose, the first ten associations that come to mind when they think of the concept 'happiness'. It is very important to let it be the first words, no matter how ridiculous or embarrassing they may seem.

The exercise, which is not a test, should not take anyone more than one minute. If a single individual wants to do it, he or she may ask two or three other people to do the exercise along with him/her, but none should discuss his or her word-associations while filling in the words.

After writing the ten first word associations that come to mind in a minute, each participant should predict individually and privately (1) how many words will be common to all members, (2) to all but one members, and (3) how many words will have been chosen by only one person.

Most persons predict that there will be many words common to the whole group, with only a few words unique to any individual, "Yet, after thousands of trials, we have found that for there to be even one word common to all members of a group of four is a rarity." [Emphasis added]

When such a 'common' word is made the centre of another oval where new "tentacles" may branch out from, and the same four people are asked to do the exercise again on this 'common' word, the same thing happens: They associate very differently. And the more people there are in a group, the less chance there is of any one word being common to all the group members.

The brothers inform that "the exercise produces similar results with any word", and also think that the more you educate people, the more unique mental networks of associations they get. (Buzan and Buzan 1995, 64-66; cf. Buzan and Buzan 2010:37-40)

Soften the impact, then

We have just brought together two very different stands on how word-operations function: Common (and obsolete) word-association tests depend on premises where it is thought that some associations are "normal" through being common, more frequent. That should be debated from now on, since word-assocations tests may not be much valid: They are absolutely not confirmed by the interesting exercises of the Buzan brothers: common (and hence normal) word-associations may be rare - may be the exceptions and not the common denominators to build much theory on to "tame individuals that associate more freely". Or, to put it more guardedly,

"Every human being is far more individual and unique than has hitherto been surmised." - Buzan and Buzan 1995: 68.

In the wider social context, so-called 'delinquent', 'abnormal' or 'eccentric' behaviour may often now be perceived in a new light as 'appropriate divergence from the norm, leading to increased creativity'. - Buzan and Buzan 1995:69.

Appreciating our uniqueness can help . . . - Buzan and Buzan 1995:69.

For all that, with these "grains of salt" (reservations), word-association studies may be fun - and could help in some cases due to such as Einfühlung processes (empathy) and other clues it gives. We have tested it much. And as often in life, it is hardly an "either-or" topic - feel free to use both methods. Jung did too.

Now, only a hundred association words are presented in the list below. To give an example: In modern times, where over 70 percent of the marriages in Oklahoma and Sweden break, "home" looks like a potent trigger word - but it is not included in the list of a hundred words. If "home" had been included there, more strong or peculiar responses could have come to the fore and been handled with expertise.

For all that, you could get a few hints to "chew" on.

Stimulus Word List

The stimulus word list below is of the 1908 form and presented by E. Cohen (157-58).

Testee ............. Tester ............. Age ............... Age ............... Sex ................ Sex ................ Date ..............

  1. Head
  2. Green
  3. Water
  4. Sing
  5. Death
  6. Long
  7. Ship
  8. Count
  9. Window
  10. Friendly
  11. Table
  12. Question
  13. Village
  14. Cold
  15. Stem
  16. Dance
  17. Sea
  18. Sick
  19. Proud
  20. Cook
  21. Ink
  22. Evil
  23. Needle
  24. Swim
  25. Trip
  26. Blue
  27. Lamp
  28. Sin
  29. Bread
  30. Rich
  31. Tree
  32. Stick
  33. Sympathy
  34. Yellow
  1. Mountain
  2. Die
  3. Salt
  4. New
  5. Moral
  6. Pray
  7. Money
  8. Stupid
  9. Magazine
  10. Despise
  11. Finger
  12. Expensive
  13. Bird
  14. Fall
  15. Book
  16. Unjust
  17. Frog
  18. Divorce
  19. Hunger
  20. White
  21. Child
  22. Attend
  23. Pencil
  24. Sad
  25. Prune
  26. Marry
  27. House
  28. Dear
  29. Glass
  30. Dispute
  31. Fur
  32. Big
  33. Turnip
  34. Paint
  1. Part
  2. Old
  3. Flowers
  4. Hit
  5. Box
  6. Wild
  7. Family
  8. Wash
  9. Cow
  10. Foreign
  11. Happiness
  12. Lie
  13. Decorum
  14. Close
  15. Brother
  16. To fear
  17. Stork
  18. Wrong
  19. Anxiety
  20. Kiss
  21. Fiance(e)
  22. Pure
  23. Door
  24. Choose
  25. Hay
  26. Satisfied
  27. Scorn
  28. Sleep
  29. Month
  30. Pretty
  31. Woman
  32. Scold

Translated from Die Empire des Unbewussten by C. A. Meier (p. 92)


Jungian Word-Association Testing, Tony Buzan, Barry Buzan findings, Literature  

Buzan, Tony with Barry Buzan. The Mind Map Book. Rev ed. London: BBC Books, 1995.

Buzan, Tony, and Barry Buzan. The Mind Map Book: Unlock Your Creativity, Boost Your Memory, Change Your Life. Harlow: BBC Active / Pearson, 2010.

Cohen, Edmund D. C. G. Jung and the Scientific Attitude. New York: Philosophical Library, 1975.

Jakobsson, Håkan. Exploring the Phenomenon of Empathy. Doctoral dissertation. Stockholm: Stockholm University, Department of Psychology, 2003

Harvesting the hay

Symbols, brackets, signs and text icons explained: (1) Text markers(2) Digesting.

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