We’ve all, at one time or another, been asked to say the first thing that pops into our heads in response to a certain word or phrase. It may have happened to us in school, in a market research group, or perhaps in a job interview at a company that regards itself as somewhat outside-the-box. Most such exercises, and the theories supporting their efficacy as a tool for revealing the speaker’s inner self, originate with the work of the Swiss psychiatrist-psychoanalyst and then-protégé of Sigmund Freud Carl Jung.
Jung published his description of this “association method” in the American Journal of Psychology in 1910, and you can see the story of its creation — animated in the usual Monty Python-esque paper-cutout style — told in the new School of Life video above. In his word-association test, says narrator Alain de Botton, “doctor and patient were to sit facing one another, and the doctor would read out a list of one hundred words. On hearing each of these, the patient was to say the first thing that came into their head.” The patient must “try never to delay speaking and that they strive to be extremely honest in reporting whatever they were thinking of, however embarrassing, strange, or random it might seem.”
Trial runs convinced Jung and his colleagues that “they had hit upon an extremely simple yet highly effective method for revealing parts of the mind that were normally relegated to the unconscious. Patients who in ordinary conversation would make no allusions to certain topics or concerns would, in a word association session, quickly let slip critical aspects of their true selves.” The idea is that, under pressure to respond as quickly and “unthinkingly” as possible, the patient would deliver up contents from the instinct-driven subconscious mind rather than the more deliberate conscious mind.
Jung used 100 words in particular to provoke these deep-seated reactions, the full list of which you can see below. While some of these words may sound fairly charged — angry, abuse, dead — most could hardly seem more ordinary, even innocuous: salt, window, head. “When the experiment is finished I first look over the general course of the reaction times,” Jung writes in the original paper. “Prolonged times” mean that “the patient can only adjust himself with difficulty, that his psychological functions proceed with marked internal frictions, with resistances.” He found, as de Botton puts it, that “it was precisely where there were the longest silences that the deepest conflicts and neuroses lay.” In Jung’s worldview, there were the quick, and there were the neurotic: a drastic simplification, to be sure, but as he showed us, sometimes the simplest language goes straight to the heart of the matter.
Carl Jung Offers an Introduction to His Psychological Thought in a 3-Hour Interview (1957)
How Carl Jung Inspired the Creation of Alcoholics Anonymous
Carl Jung Explains His Groundbreaking Theories About Psychology in a Rare Interview (1957)
The Visionary Mystical Art of Carl Jung: See Illustrated Pages from The Red Book
Face to Face with Carl Jung: ‘Man Cannot Stand a Meaningless Life’ (1959)
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.
1 WORD: 3 X
Wow I didn’t use any of your words! To each of us our own
I wish I knew to what various answers classifies us.
…Then I hesitated on number 12, ‘to ask’. My mind eventually burped out ‘Question’.
I think the few I hesitated on are interesting. Just a handful I drew a blank on.
Was unaware of Word Assoc. Tst! Have read Jung,been afan for yrs; Need to get more info,Thanks!
Very interesting #5 freaked me out why would I answer that way wow