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Word association was first developed as a research instrument by Francis Galton and was subsequently developed by Carl Jung as a clinical diagnostic tool.

Galton, who thought that there might be a link between a person's I.Q. (intelligence quotient) and word associations. A typical association is such: if I say "cat", you might say "dog". This indicates that you associate dog with cat, a common association. A common "association test" would be list of trigger words that the person being tested would respond to as quickly as possible. Often these responses were timed, and it became obvious that certain words could cause a considerable delay in the individual's response. Sir Francis was unable to find a direct link between intelligence and word association, however Jung became curious about the time delay that occurred in responding to certain words. Jung theorized that the delay between stimulus and response indicated some sort of block in self expression. One type of block might be that too many possible answers rush to the surface and create a sort-of expression log-jam, and that one is unable to answer until one sorts out all the possible answers. Another possibility is that the individual feels “uncomfortable” with the response, or that the response is “inappropriate”, thus they resist expressing the answer. This resistance to answer is part of the phenomena that Freud described as repression.

See also