Take Carl Jung’s Word Association Test, a Quick Route Into the Subconscious (1910)

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.

1. head
2. green
3. water
4. to sing
5. dead
6. long
7. ship
8. to pay
9. window
10. friendly
11. to cook
12. to ask
13. cold
14. stem
15. to dance
16. village
17. lake
18. sick
19. pride
20. to cook
21. ink
22. angry
23. needle
24. to swim
25. voyage
26. blue
27. lamp
28. to sin
29. bread
30. rich
31. tree
32. to prick
33. pity
34. yellow
35. mountain
36. to die
37. salt
38. new
39. custom
40. to pray
41. money
42. foolish
43. pamphlet
44. despise
45. finger
46. expensive
47. bird
48. to fall
49. book
50. unjust
51 frog
52. to part
53. hunger
54. white
55. child
56. to take care
57. lead pencil
58. sad
59. plum
60. to marry
61. house
62. dear
63. glass
64. to quarrel
65. fur
66. big
67. carrot
68. to paint
69. part
70. old
71. flower
72. to beat
73. box
74. wild
75. family
76. to wash
77. cow
78. friend
79. luck
80. lie
81. deportment
82. narrow
83. brother
84. to fear
85. stork
86. false
87. anxiety
88. to kiss
89. bride
90. pure
91. door
92. to choose
93. hay
94. contented
95. ridicule
96. to sleep
97. month
98. nice
99. woman
100. to abuse

Related content:

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.

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Comments (5)
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  • Alexis Ainsworth says:

    1 WORD: 3 X


  • Janice L Howell says:

    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.

  • Ratherd says:


    …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.

  • John Campbell says:

    Was unaware of Word Assoc. Tst! Have read Jung,been afan for yrs; Need to get more info,Thanks!

  • Alice says:

    Very interesting #5 freaked me out why would I answer that way wow

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