Would the word association test we saw in the Skyfall trailer actually work?

In the trailer for Skyfall, the new James Bond movie, 007 sits in an interrogation room blurting out answers to a word-association test, while his superiors gravely watch. What psychological insights do these people hope to gain from this — other than finding the limits of Bond's patience?

Find out the rationale behind these word tests, and what they can actually show us about your psyche, below.

By now we've all seen the Skyfall trailer, where Bond meets Jung. Word association tests are great for drama, because they allow for wonderful revealing hints to be dropped, they can come with long pauses that build tension, and they themselves can build to a dramatic conclusion. All of these things happen in this particular trailer. The response to every word seems to emphasize that Bond is a friggin' bad ass.

"Country."

"England."

(He's patriotic!)

"Gun."

"Shot."

(He's comfortable with a weapon.)

"Agent."

"Provocateur."

(Literally this is someone who manipulates others into breaking the law. But "provocateur" shares some meaningful syllables with "provocative" and they have a shot of Bond with his shirt off, so we know what they're trying to invoke, here.)

"Murder."

"Employment."

(Oh, the world weariness of this seasoned agent.)

"Skyfall."

" . . . Done."

OR IS IT?

Yep, it's a good bit for the trailer, since everyone already knows who James Bond is or what kind of content we can expect from the movies (guns, spies, and girls), it instead provides a flavor that will work for this particular segment of the franchise. But what about the actual test itself? We all know about word association tests, but for the most part I know of them as short-lived party games. Ones that you usually give up on, as soon as someone finds the booze.

Would the word association test we saw in the Skyfall trailer actually work?

Free association was a technique of Carl Jung, a founder of analytical psychology. And if the test were being performed as Jung intended, the various people watching through one-way glass would have done well to pull up a chair. The tests were not so much meant to get the patient to unconsciously reveal something shocking about themselves as to set up a baseline for their character. Like all character baselines, this takes time. Jung would use hundreds of words, and record both the responses and, if there were any noticeable delay, the time it took to respond. After about a hundred words, he would ask them to reproduce the same responses all over again. The words with natural and automatic responses often came easily. Some words, though, were impossible to reproduce, or took a long time for the patient to remember. Looking at these words, the psychologist could get a sense of what words were forced, or what words caused mental or emotional confusion about the word. Remember though, this particular Bond is a poker champion, a skill that requires a long memory and a lack of tell responses. Perhaps it wouldn't be too helpful a test to administer to him.

What's more, the test doesn't just have to be adjusted to the patient, but to the psychologist as well. And it's recommended that the psychologist give the same test to a large number of people, in order to get a sense of what different responses might mean. This means that the psychologist in question shouldn't just have performed the test on a lot of people — but on a lot of double-O secret agents, in particular. I have to say, that that would make for an amazing miniseries.

So what to conclude from the test that we see being given? Well, it appears, by the delay, that Bond is in a bit of a tizzy about whatever Skyfall is, but he leaves too soon for us to really see how far into his interior life the tizzy extends. Which is just perfect — for a trailer.

Via York University and Winer Foundation.