Free Association

Rorschach test

Free association is a practice in psychoanalytic therapy in which a client is asked to freely share thoughts, random words, and anything else that comes to mind, regardless of how coherent or appropriate the thoughts are. The process was originally developed by Sigmund Freud, who claimed that it gave clients complete freedom to examine their thoughts without prompting or intervention by the therapist. Freud claimed that the technique helped prevent three common issues in therapy:

  1. Transference – the process of transferring feelings one has for one person to a different person;
  2. Projection – the process of projecting one’s own qualities onto someone else;
  3. Resistance – the practice of blocking out certain feelings or memories.

How Does Free Association Work?
In traditional free association, the client is encouraged to verbalize or write all thoughts that come to mind. Free association is not a linear thought pattern. Rather, a person might produce an incoherent stream of words such as dog, red, mother, and scoot, or may jump randomly from one memory or emotion to another. The idea is that free association reveals associations and connections that might otherwise go uncovered and that clients may uncover repressed memories and emotions.

Contemporary Free Association
Freudian free association is fairly uncommon in therapy these days, even among neo-Freudians. Contemporary mental health practitioners might us a modified version of free association whereby they ask a client to recall all the memories associated with a particular event, share the first word that comes to mind after seeing a picture, or encourage a client to write down all of the thoughts she has during a particular time.

Criticism of Free Association
The primary criticism of free association has been that clients may overproduce associations. Under pressure from a therapist, a client may struggle to say as many random words and thoughts as possible, even if the client is not actually thinking about these topics. Associations can also be random and unrelated to a client’s psyche. For example, a person may begin by recalling a memory of her mother, then remember song lyrics associated with the memory, then begin naming musical artists. This could create the appearance of associations and memories that do not actually exist.


  1. Free association. (n.d.). Free Association. Retrieved from
  2. Kring, A. M., Johnson, S. L., Davison, G. C., & Neale, J. M. (2010). Abnormal psychology. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Last Updated: 08-7-2015

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