Does what you draw, and how you draw it, reveal who you are? There are a whole battery of psychological tests that give people art projects, and interpret their results. Learn what people can figure out (or think they can figure out) from your drawing of a tree.

I first heard of the House-Tree-Person, or HTP, test when I was reading The Silence of the Lambs. It was in the context of an institution distinguishing between people who were legitimate potential patients and people who were murderous psychopaths. To me, that seemed like quite a test. The HTP test involves having the subject draw a house, a person, and a tree. Diagnosing from that is fairly ambitious, but it's meant to be part of a number of different tests, all of which add up to an accurate representation of the subject.


The HTP test itself is also part of a wider genre of drawing-based tests, which grew and built upon each other over about a hundred years of psychology. The origin for all of it started in 1885, when a draughtsman and art teacher named Ebenezer Cooke first noticed that children pass through stages in their artistry, starting with abstract scribbles, winding through basic shapes and symbols, and slowly becoming able to reproduce the human figure. He published a paper about this progression and how art should be taught to children both for its own sake and to increase their education and intelligence. The book was a hit with teachers, who began looking at drawing as a way to both teach and evaluate their students.

The person who transferred the concept of art from education to formal psychology was the miraculously-named Florence Goodenough, who in 1926 came up with what is still called the Goodenough Draw-A-Person test. A child psychologist, Goodenough asked children to draw a picture of a man, of a woman, and of themselves. She then evaluated their intelligence and intellectual development by scoring what they drew. Early pictures were more shapes than anything else. As children developed they began putting faces on their shapes. They added limbs, bodies, and eventually clothes and action poses. Goodenough came up with a point system for each added feature, in which a top score was 64 for the three different drawings.


The HTP test built on Goodenough's work, but evaluated personality instead of cognitive development. Psychologists believed that the way each of the objects were drawn said something about the mentality of the person doing the drawing. The size of the house, for example, was important. Too small and the person felt isolated. Too large and the person was overwhelmed by their family. Adding things like big windows, doors, and a sidewalk outside indicated a desire and appreciation for connection. The same sociability was signaled when a person drew plenty of leaves and branches on their tree. Overly complicated roots, on the other hand, indicated obsessive tendencies. Cut branches were a symbol of powerlessness, as was any truncation of the limbs of the human in the subject's person drawing. Further evaluation of the human drawings took into account both clothing and posture - even lip size. When children did their HTP test, the psychologist followed up with an interview, during which they would ask if anyone had tried to cut down the tree, or who lives in the house.

The idea of the HTP test is that certain groups of people will share certain artistic conceits, like the need to draw a male figure rather than a female one, or the tendency to draw a wizened tree rather than a robust one. Some psychologists note that schizophrenic patients often have trouble with the test, depicting houses as having arms and legs, and adding double features, like two noses, to the human figures.


The test has problems. Originally done in the 1940s, and redone in the 1960s, many feel it lacks the comprehensiveness it needs to be a diagnostic tool. Drawings from only about 140 people were used to set the standards. In some diagnostic categories women far outnumbered men, and in others it was the other way around. The people were generally from a homogeneous racial and social group. It certainly can't stand on its own.

Still, the technique of using drawings to indicate mental state has expanded in some interesting ways. Some psychologists use the HTP test before and after major life changes to see how a subject has changed their outlook. For example, one study of people doing the test before and after surgery indicated that before surgery people regressed — drawing their houses as cottages, their trees as saplings, and their people as children. After surgery, they drew adult humans, full grown trees, and larger houses.

Variations of the test proliferate. One requires people to draw a person in the rain, and interprets the inclusion, and even the tilt, of an umbrella. There are two tests that ask people to draw human figures, and then, when the drawing is done, change something about them. In 1978, a psychologist came up with a Draw-A-Member-Of-A-Minority-Group test. The idea wasn't to figure out how a person felt about minorities, but about themselves. It was thought that the emotional distance, or even contempt, involved in drawing a minority would cause people to project all the things they hated most about themselves onto the figure in the drawing. Then again, why not take the direct route? One psychological test requested the subjects draw the most unpleasant thing they could think of at the moment. Few would want to see the results.


The early interpretations of the tests, with their rigid scoring and deep symbolic meaning have generally gone by the wayside. Although scientists do, for the most part, agree that there can be some similarities between the drawings that different patients make, the subjective element of the test makes it difficult to use as an indicator. What is a "normal" amount of roots for the tree? What's a "normal-sized" house? Is a person's upraised arm aggressive or enthusiastic? The test seems to be so widespread and so enduringly popular because it's a tool that can be helpful with the method of treatment, rather than the diagnosis.

If anyone wants to put their HTP tests in the comments, go ahead.

[Via House-Tree-Person Technique, Psychosomatic Medicine]