Sentence completion methods are presentations of the beginning of sentences which then requests that the subjects complete the sentence any way they would like. This method is based on the idea that it will reveal more about thoughts, fantasies, and emotional conflicts than testing with direct questions (Weiner & Greene, 2008).
Tests are developed to be as vague as possible so the most amount of projection as possible can occur. If the questions or instructions are too clear they will not promote freedom of expression and the results will say nothing. For example, a sentence beginning with The worst thing about growing old… is not going to provide as much opportunity for a response as Other people…. (Holaday, Smith, & Sherry, 2000). Overall they try to eliminate sentences that could possibly be completed with a one word answer.
Hermann Ebbinghaus invented the method in 1879 to test the mental ability of school children in Germany. He used is test to study his interest in the development intellectual capacity and reasoning ability in children (Hersen, 2003). Carl Jung was the first to look at if sentence completion could be used for personality assessment. He thought the personal meanings of word associations could be used. He popularized the idea that inner notions could be analyzed through people’s associations of different words. In his methods, he would say a list of words to the person being tested and with each word, the client would be asked to say the first thing that came to their mind (Hersen, 2003).
The association method was then formalized in the United States by Grace Kent and Aaron Rosanoff who created a Free Association test. Their test differed from Jung’s because it used more everyday and vague words. For example, Jung’s test used mother, father, sex, and work. Kent and Rosanoff’s test used words like table, dark, music, and man (as opposed to father). The word association technique was developed into many different versions with many different words all ranging in different levels of aggressive words (Rhode, 1957).
Over time, assessors decided that single word responses to one word stimuli was not reaching the full potential of the method. Something could be done to tap more into an individuals personality. The method gradually developed from one word, to brief phrases, to sentences. Contemporary sentence completion methods began to fully evolve in the late 1920’s (Rhode, 1957).
The beginning of using the formal sentence completion method for personality assessment was in 1928 with Arthur Payne. Payne used the tests for guidance purposes in asylums and institutions and to assess career-related personal traits (Schafer, Rotter, Rafferty, 1953). Alexander Tendler used the method to study emotional reactions. With his tests, all his sentences began with I and revealed something about annoyances, fears, aversions, like, interests, and attachments. It has never been validated that these tests can be used in emotional contexts (Schafer et al, 1953).
As opposed to Tendler and Payne, Amanda Rhode decided not to focus on specific aspects of personality, but use the measure to develop a general personality test. She developed the first validated personality measure of this kind and discussed abroad range of personal issues and experiences (Rhode, 1957). The purpose of the measure was to “reveal latent needs, sentiments, feelings, and attitudes which subjects would be unable or unwilling to recognize or to express in direct communication” (Weiner & Greene, 2008). Most sentence completion methods today were developed from the basis of Amanda Rhode’s test and theories.
One of the most popular of these tests is the RISB, or Rotter Incomplete Sentence Blank. The original version of the test was developed in 1950 by Rotter and Rafferty. The main objective of the test was to create a version of the sentence completion method that could be administered and scored easily to permit a widespread use. They also wanted to provide specific diagnostic criteria so the results of the exam could be obtained more quickly. However, the test was not intended to give a full view of personality, but more of a starting point for clinicians to take direction from. The current version of this test has three forms at different levels including High School, College, and Adult. The test is scored on a seven point scale with answers being tagged from a conflict (pessimism, hostility, hopelessness) to neutral (stereotypes, catchphrases, cliches) to positive (humor, optimism, acceptance) rating. It takes about 15 to 35 minutes to complete with scoring ranging in time depending on the familiarity with administering the test. This is the most popular form of the Sentence Completion Method used today (Hersen, 2003).
Hersen, M. (2003). Comprehensive handbook of psychological assessment volume 2: personality assessment. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons.
Holaday, M, Smith, D, & Sherry, A. (2000). Sentence completion tests: a review of the literature and a results of a survey of members of the society for personality assessment. Journal of personality assessment, 74(3), 371-383.
Rhode, A. (1957). The sentence completion method: it’s diagnostic and clinical application to mental disorders. New York, NY: The Ronald Press Company.
Schafer, R, Rotter, J, & Rafferty, J. (1953). Test of personality: word techniques. In R Schafer (Ed.),Contributions toward medical psychology (pp. 577-598). New York, NY: Ronald press company.
Weiner, I, & Greene, R. (2008). Handbook of personality assessment. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons.