Sunday, October 25, 2009

Unstructured Time as the Best Projective Test

Projective testing has a long history within psychology. The basic idea is simple: people look at ambiguous images (inkblots, in the case of the Rorschach test; pictures of people doing things in the Thematic Apperception Test) and explain what they see. What we project into the pictures is believed to say something about our ways of seeing the world; it also says something about how we organize our perceptions and thoughts.

Consider the Rorschach image above, which I pulled from the Web. When I first took the test as a graduate student, I saw two things:

1) The bottom left and right were "two seahorses, turning from each other in a bashful way."

2) Turning the card upside down, I said that it looked like "two African native women cooking over a kettle, maybe as part of a ceremony".

All in all, those are responses you might expect from a psychologist-to-be: largely harmonious images of people (or animals-as-people) interacting with each other. The form of the responses dominated the use of shading or color, which is also typical for me--a more intellectual than emotional style of responding to the world.

In reality, we don't need cards to assess people in a projective manner. Anytime we face a relatively blank or ambiguous situation, we tend to respond with our own needs, values, and feelings.

Time may be the best projective test of all. What do people do when they don't have anything that they *need* to do? Unstructured time gives us no cues: we have to create activity--and what we create says something about who we are.

After a long work week, I knew that I would have unstructured time on Saturday. The thought of relaxing for a day never entered my head. I knew my daughter (who has some diagnosed learning problems) was having some problems in a couple of her college courses, so I drove to her campus and we spent the afternoon studying--just as we had in high school. For another person, driving two hours after a long work week and taking on large reading assignments would be overwhelming and most unappealing. For me, it was fun. It was a chance to be there for someone I care about. I could never have spent the time on a golf course or socializing with neighbors; to me, that would have seemed frivolous.

On other recent occasions of unstructured time, Margie and I have traveled to areas where we've never visited, including an ethnic neighborhood where we seemed to be the only native English speakers. On still other occasions, I've spent a long morning researching new market indicators and how they work with different money management strategies.

What I almost never do in unstructured time: go to parties, watch TV, get together with other couples, relax at home or on vacation, work in the yard, anything artistic, play sports for reasons other than fitness development. What I often do: read books, research markets, write, travel, go out to eat to new/different places, visit family members, surf the Web for news.

So you get the idea: the unstructured time test shows that I value intellectual and interpersonal activity that is more instrumental than expressive and that is focused on intimate/close relationships rather than purely social ones. If an activity doesn't have a goal/purpose and if it doesn't bring me close to someone I care about, it strikes me as a waste of time.

Other people, of course, structure their free time in very different ways and might value expressive and social activity (sharing with friends, arranging flowers) and pure relaxation (a day at the beach, watching TV of an evening). There's no right or wrong here, just a relatively blank canvas of time that we fill with what we most treasure.

The ultimate blank canvas is retirement. I'm convinced that how people structure their time in retirement is one of the best windows on their souls. With children having left the nest and the end of career work, retirement leaves most time unstructured. How do people use that time? For intellectual stimulation? For productive activity? For social time with family? For travel? All say something about who we are and how we view ourselves and the world.

One retired couple moves to an area to live a country club lifestyle; one couple moves to be closer to their children and grandchildren; still another couple stays in their home community and goes to work building a charitable foundation. By retirement age, when time is not structured by school or work, life itself becomes a grand projective test.

So if you want to know someone, don't ask for their self-descriptions: just look at what they're doing when they don't have to be doing anything.

And if you want to know a trader, don't ask for a self-assessment: just look at what he or she does outside of market hours.

(written during free time of a Sunday morning)