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Projective Measures: If Shakespeare Had Been a Woman, Romeo and Juliet Might Have Survived Romance

With Michael Wapner

Picture a couple sitting quietly beside a river. The spires of a town rise in the distance. What thoughts run through their minds in this peaceful setting? Homicide? Betrayal? Death? Stabbing? Rape? Impossible? Yet when late adolescent males were asked to tell a story about a scene such as the one above, over one-fifth spoke of violent acts such as these; very few females did. What are we to make of this violent imagery, or its absence?

Explanations of gender differences in aggression have typically assumed that females repress “normal” levels of aggression, that is, the levels seen in males. Susan Pollack and Carol Gilligan (1982) suggest another explanation for this gender difference. They suggest that differences in aggression reflect the way individuals of either sex perceive social realities. Males and females alike will respond with violence when they perceive danger, but each perceives danger in different settings.

Males are socialized to be independent and self-sufficient. Settings that limit their independence, by involving them in emotional connections with others, can challenge their sense of self. Will males see danger in situations that involve affiliation? Females are socialized to be interdependent and form connections with others. Will females perceive danger in situations in which they are isolated from others? Would settings of competitive achievement arouse fears of isolation by setting individual females apart from the group?

Deep-seated feelings such as reactions to danger are often difficult to observe and measure. Pollack and Gilligan used a projective measure—the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT)—to get at these feelings. This measure consists of a series of ambiguous pictures; subjects are asked to tell a story about each. It is assumed that they will project themselves into the situation they are describing and actually tell about their own thoughts and feelings.

Projective measures such as the TAT give a rich, complex record of an individual’s feelings. Often the individual is unable to verbalize these feelings and may even be unaware of them. Because individuals respond to their interpretations of events rather than to the events themselves, projective measures have an additional advantage in that they let us see these interpretations.

TAT measures have a number of disadvantages as well. Extensive training is required before one can interpret the responses. Reliability and validity for these measures are frequently low; that is, the measure does not necessarily give the same “reading” each time it is used, and may not always tap what it was designed to measure. These problems are common with subjective measures such as the TAT, in which there is always a danger that the investigator may be reading his or her own feelings into the subject’s answers.

Pollack and Gilligan used two TAT cards that portrayed affiliation and two TAT cards portraying achievement. Individuals wrote stories to all four cards.

When the investigators analyzed the stories, they found that males wrote many more violent stories to the affiliation cards than to the achievement ones—more than three times as many. The opposite pattern emerged for females; nearly three times as many females wrote violent stories to the achievement cards as to the affiliation ones.

These findings support the hypothesis that males and females perceive danger in different settings. More specifically, the very relationships females seek in order to protect themselves from isolation—a setting they regard as dangerous—are the ones that males perceive as dangerous, because they involve connection with others.

William Shakespeare foresaw only doom and death in the adolescent love affair between Romeo and Juliet. Had Juliet taken the pen from his hand, we might have had a happier ending. Are adolescents still writing scripts that reflect these gender-specific fears? Or have changing sex roles spelled the end to this particular gender difference? Do the purveyors of popular culture know how males’ fears differ from females’? Do they use them? Movie and television producers may not have read Pollack and Gilligan, but when was the last time you saw a movie where the heroine chose career over love or the hero walked away from worldly success to start a family? If you do recall such a film or TV show, was it a commercial success? Would you pay to see such a movie?



S. Pollack & C. Gilligan. (1982). Images of violence in Thematic Apperception Test stories. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 42: 159–167.