In market research, there are frequent investigations and researches on what customers buy, why they buy; how they interact with products/services, and the companies that provide them and how they feel about those products, services and brands—and their purchasing experience.

 ‘Projection’ is a defense mechanism with which the ego protects itself from anxiety by externalizing unpleasant feelings or experiential element.

Psychologists worked to create techniques that would reveal unobservable, covert aspects of personality. Projective techniques (PT) are one of those techniques.

PTs were originally developed for use in psychology. Nowadays these techniques are used in an evaluation tool for interviews. Projective technique (PT) is the use of vague, ambiguous, unstructured stimulus objects or situations in which the subject “projects” his or her personality, attitude, opinions and self-concept to give the situation some structure. These are used to understand the inner feelings, emotions and subconscious attitudes of the respondents to chosen stimuli.

Here the question which struck my mind was to why bother with projective techniques? Why not just ask people what they think? The answer that respondents give sounds manipulated and idealistic hiding their inner self. Their deeply held attitudes and motivations are not verbalized when direct questions are asked as clearly defined questions result in answers that are subjective and judgmental. By providing the respondent with a question or stimulus that is not clear, the underlying and unconscious motivations or attitudes are revealed. The most interesting part is that respondents may not even be aware that they hold these particular attitudes. Thus PT allows respondents to project their subjective or true opinions and beliefs. The respondent’s real feelings are then inferred from what he/she says about others.

For example cell phones; People always state rationale reasons for buying cell phones but there are hidden and unstated significant emotional drivers/benefits attached with their choice. An iPhone owner will never say straight that his iPhone is his status symbol and its mere showing off makes him feel socially acceptable and a hip. In such situations PTs are the best solution.

These techniques work because they get respondents to speak about something indirectly by projecting their thoughts and ideas, by talking about other people, or objects or situations. They help respondents go beyond their rationale perceptions and opinions to explore their underlying thoughts and behaviors, revealing their deeply held motivations and values.

Linzey in 1959 divided these techniques into five groups:

1. Associative techniques in which a particular stimulus is used to elicit the first thing that occurs in the respondent’s mind. The respondents are presented with a stimulus and they respond by telling the first word, image or thought elicited by the stimulus. Its objective is to gain a glimpse of Vocabulary and Brand personification. Example: Word association test and Picture Deck.

2. Completion techniques in which the respondent is required to complete sentences or drawings (sentence completion or captions in comic-strip callouts). The respondent is given an incomplete sentence, story, argument or conversation, and asked to finish it. For example: Sentence Completion, Brand mapping (Gordon and Langmaid, 1988) and The Open Template.

3. Constructive techniques in which the respondent is asked to construct a story or a picture from a stimulus concept. Build a story around each picture, what led to it and what may happen in future and then present opinions of other people’s actions, feelings or attitudes. Example: Laddering, Clay modeling and Using Personification. Focus is on the manner in which the respondent constructs something, rather than on what it represents.

4. Choice/ordering techniques in which the respondent is required to choose from a group, or to order a group (of pictures, sentences, etc.). The respondents have to explain why certain things are “most important” or “least important”, or to “rank” or “order” or “categorize” certain factors associated with the stimulus.

5. Expressive techniques in which the respondent is required to organize a particular stimulus into a self-expressive process, such as role playing, psychodrama, dance, etc. In my view, some of the narrative interviews commonly used in qualitative research nowadays also falls into this category. Example: Mind Mapping and Third-person technique.

Some of the best-known PTs:

The Rorschach Inkblot Test:  It was one of the first projective tests and continues to be one of the best-known. Developed by Swiss psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach in 1921, the test consists of 10 different cards that depict an ambiguous inkblot. The respondent is shown one card at a time and asked to describe what he or she sees in the image. The responses are recorded verbatim by the tester. Gestures, tone of voice and other reactions are also noted. The results of the test can vary depending on which of the many existing scoring systems the examiner uses.

The Thematic Apperception Test (TAT): In this the respondent is asked to look at a series of ambiguous scenes. He or she is then asked to tell a story describing the scene, including what is happening, how the characters are feeling and how the story will end. The examiner then scores the test based on the needs, motivations and anxieties of the main character as well as how the story eventually turns out.

PTs are fun. They are widely used, with clients, respondents and researchers all finding them an interesting way apart from traditional market research questions. However, considerable care needs to be used when asking such questions. Measuring the subconscious is difficult than measuring something abstract, as the problem of abstraction is that it is hard to find the right words, whereas the problem with the subconscious is that people do not even think about it. Here our inability to phrase a perfect question causes confusion between truth and error.

Though PTs were developed in psychology but concerns about their reliability have caused them to be an ‘alternative’ for psychology practitioners. In market research they remain mainstream, as other techniques are not so precise about behavior and attitudes of people. Of course, being perceived as useful does not solve the problem of validity. It is important to choose the right technique to fit the research problem. Three things are done to prevent errors while using PTs. First probing is used to confirm any interpretations. Secondly multiple techniques are used and results are believed to be reliable when the same conclusions are drawn from multiple techniques. Last but not the least: combining the data of multiple people. If the same responses are obtained from lots of people, then it is considered that the responses are true.

It is my personal thought that Projective Techniques are very vital in their approach. One should use them, adapt them, enhance them and imply them with creativity. PTs are to be used with creative respondents who have a good imagination, are spontaneous, and willing to take few risks and to engage much more quickly and effectively. It is very important to create a research environment in which the respondents feel comfortable and free to speak their minds. Many of these techniques require respondents to step out of their comfort zone. For a researcher this gives a much better understanding of how human needs and emotional values connect to products, services, features, brands. As a result: much more consistency between research findings and actual behavior.


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