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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