Qualitative market research is often aimed at increasing understanding of consumers’ thoughts and feelings toward brands, products, concepts, advertising, social issues and other important topics. Projective techniques are indirect methods used in qualitative research. These techniques allow researchers to tap into consumers’ deep motivations, beliefs, attitudes and values. This is important because psychology has told us for a long time that much of what drives behavior can be emotional and irrational in nature. To some extent, these emotional drivers of behavior lie below conscious awareness.

Consumers tend to be aware of their conscious motivations and decision-making processes. Therefore, when a researcher directly asks a consumer why they like a product, favor a brand, or prefer a competitor, responses tended to be rational and purposeful. However, we know that our connections to brands and our preferences for some products over others stem from motivations and values in which consumers are not consciously aware.

Projective techniques are useful because people tend to have limited understanding of their own behavior; likewise, people often have difficulty articulating their motivations and desires. While direct questioning works well most of the time, sometimes market researchers want to investigate consumers’ deeper values and beliefs. In such cases, projective techniques are typically used in conjunction with direct questioning in qualitative research.

The Use of Projective Techniques Originated with Clinical Psychologists

Projective techniques and tests are rooted in clinical psychology. The Rorschach Inkblot Test, probably the most famous projective test, comes from the psychoanalytic branch of clinical psychology and was popular in the 1960’s. The Rorschach Inkblot Test involves the use of ambiguous images (inkblots). Individuals are asked to name what they see and responses are interpreted by a psychologist specifically trained to do the test.

The Thematic Apperception Test (TAT) is a widely used projective technique used in mainstream clinical psychology where an image of an ambiguous social scene is shown and an individual is asked to create a story to explain the image. The assumption is that sub-conscious or non-conscious feelings and beliefs will be “projected’ onto ambiguous stimuli.

Many other traditional projective techniques have their origins in clinical psychology, too, such as word associations, role-playing and sentence completion. Projective techniques allow psychologists to uncover deep associations, emotions and thought processes.

The Use of Projective Techniques in Market Research

Although market researchers are interested in deep emotions and thought processes specific to brands and products, the purpose is still to get at those feelings, motivations, attitudes, biases and cognitions that are below rational, conscious awareness.

Some projective techniques, such as the Rorschach Inkblot Test, are specific to clinical psychology but many other techniques are quite useful in market research. Not all projective techniques involve projection in the classic, psychoanalytic sense; rather, the idea of tapping into subconscious associations and emotional connections is the goal of projective techniques in market research. Good market researchers will always confirm their findings through various sources. It is likely that findings from projective techniques would be subsequently confirmed with survey research, as are most qualitative findings.

Some common projective techniques include word associations, imagery associations, grouping and choice ordering techniques, imagery associations with consumer personalities, and personification activities.

Projective techniques are typically used in depth interviews or traditional focus groups. The techniques tend to yield rich and accurate information and they do not require sophisticated verbal literacy or forethought. Research participants often like these exercises even though the main purpose is not always clear to them

Projective techniques can be fundamental to consumer research, particularly when the goal is to understand deep emotional connections and cognitions toward brands, products, and services.

Evette Joyce is an Account Director at Q2 Insights, Inc., a market research consulting firm with offices in San Diego and New Orleans.