Understanding the Concept of “Free Association” Technique

Unless you’re being playful with a loved one, sharing your own random thoughts isn’t a normal or ideal scenario. Imagine saying things like “cat”, “success”, and “noodles”, for no particular reason. Yes, it can be annoying to hear. People will surely wonder what you mean if you tell them those words. Doing it in public may make it worse. Eyes will follow you. You might even get into trouble if you happen to blurt out an offensive term without thinking. In psychotherapy, though, this is a well-known method that can be useful for certain matters and conditions. Read on to understand the concept of free association as a technique.


Free association is a basic process in psychoanalysis and other forms of psychodynamic psychotherapy in which you freely express whatever comes to mind. No matter how embarrassing or irrelevant, you don’t censor anything at all. You allow unconscious material such as impulses, repressed emotions, and traumatic experiences to come to the surface. With non-judgmental curiosity and acceptance, the therapist interprets these to learn more about you.  


Sigmund Freud developed free association between 1892 and 1895, as an alternative to hypnosis. Freud is the father of psychoanalysis, the origin of psychotherapy. Psychoanalysis is a set of theories and therapeutic techniques related to the study of the conscious mind, which together form a method of treatment for mental health disorders. Free association is a psychoanalysis tool. Freud discovered that it enabled patients to recover and recall important memories more (they are fully conscious unlike in hypnosis). 

Freud proposed that free association helps reveal deeply buried mental conflicts. The three most common ones are:


Transferring unconscious wishes or feelings for someone to another person (e.g. anger at parent to the therapist); may be positive or negative; as a defense mechanism, it’s often related to anger and other hostile emotions.  


Projecting your own qualities to someone else (projecting your incompetence to your colleague); a defense mechanism which defends the human ego against unconscious impulses deemed dangerous, through denial and blame.


Curbing certain thoughts, feelings, or memories (avoiding conversations related to marriage); displaying opposing behavior toward therapy; exhibited either directly or indirectly; a phenomenon often encountered in clinical practice.

To describe free association to his clients, Freud used this analogy: “Act as though, for instance, you were a traveler sitting next to the window of a railway carriage and describing to someone inside the carriage the changing views which you see outside.” 

One of free association’s possible influences was an essay by Ludwig Börne suggesting that to foster creativity you “write down, without any falsification or hypocrisy, everything that comes into your head”. Moreover, a fundamental rule clients should agree to at the beginning of analysis is being honest throughout the entire therapeutic process. The pledge articulated by Freud was, “Finally, never forget that you have promised to be absolutely honest, and never leave anything out because, for some reason or other, it is unpleasant to tell it.”

How Does It Work?

Free association usually works by first having you get into a relaxed position (sitting, lying down, etc.). Next, you can keep your eyes closed if you want to avoid any surrounding distraction. The therapist then instructs you to begin talking about whatever you think of at the moment, with no particular order in mind. This encourages you to speak of issues you’re probably not aware of. Another way of doing free association is responding to a list of words given to you. You say what immediately enters your mind when you hear a specific word or phrase. Understanding what troubles you is key to making changes that are necessary in dealing with your problems.

Free association involves no pre-planned agenda. Neither you nor the therapist knows exactly where the conversation will lead.  


As previously discussed, free association intends to bring deep-seated concerns out in the open for you and the therapist to discover. For instance, appearing as a cheerful soul to others might be causing you to hide negative emotions, so you say words like “I’m not really happy,” or “I wish I could show my real self to others.” For word association tests, you might say “fake” in response to “sister” if you have hidden disdain for your sister.


Although free association does uncover repressed thoughts, feelings, and memories, that is not the primary goal. It aims to identify fears and urges which are interwoven with such psychological material. So, simply knowing what’s going on in your head is not enough. Everything must be dissected to find significant points, not leaving a single one out. Only a mental health professional can assist you in this, and consequently, in achieving recovery.

Contemporary Free Association

Even among Neo-Freudians (psychologists whose work followed Freud’s), free association isn’t used much anymore. Nonetheless, it has made its way into modified forms. Rorschach Inkblot Test (analyzes subject’s perception of inkblots), Thematic Apperception Test (makes use of one’s interpretation of ambiguous images), and others which involve tasks like conjuring up memories associated with a specific event, writing down thoughts, and reacting to pictures. 


Sigmund Freud has been criticized for mainly using pressure in free association. They say it’s like bullying the patient into being genuine–inability to comply is looked down upon as it renders the whole therapy useless. Associations are also said to be possibly unrelated. For example, recalling a memory of your late grandparents may remind you of their favorite food, which may lead to you referring to different tastes. Even memories or associations that don’t exist can pop up and confuse your therapist. 

Free association is an interesting and original psychological technique. It can be useful in therapy because of how it helps uncover a person’s unconscious and expose the root of their problem. If you aren’t comfortable with this method, you don’t have to force yourself. However, if you’re willing and you believe you’re capable of facing your issues head-on, free association might be right for you. Just remember that professional advice and factors like your mental health condition and its severity are essential in determining which type of psychotherapy you need.   

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Written by Hannah Grace

A B.S. Psychology graduate who fights both real and imaginary shadows every day with music and words.

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