In qualitative research, a key issue that researchers run into is that participants do not always reveal what they really think or feel when questioned directly.
This is for a variety of reasons. For one, a human tendency is to “show our best selves.” People may respond in ways that help them feel liked or that they are giving the “correct” response. This is true in both group research settings and individual interviews.
Another human weakness is that we don’t always even know why we think, feel, or respond the way we do.
So enter: Projective techniques.
First, a definition: What are projective techniques in qualitative research?
As a response to these quirks in human behavior, qualitative researchers have devised ways to get around participants’ inability to answer (whether consciously or unconsciously) how they really feel, think, or act.
Projective techniques are creative exercises that allow moderators to understand a participants’ true opinions and beliefs about ideas, objects, motivations, or behaviors.
Sounds pretty cool, huh? Projective techniques are cool, and well-trained moderators use them extensively when interviewing. However, to work well, projective techniques need to be used at the right time in the research study, and the moderator needs to know which ones to choose, based on the study objectives.
What are some examples of projective techniques in qualitative research?
Let’s review some examples of common types of projective techniques you might find researchers using in a focus group setting, individual interview, or even online interview.
A sentence completion projective exercise is exactly as it sounds: Participants are given incomplete sentences and asked to complete the thought. Typically, a moderator will write down sentences in the third-person and the idea of the sentence isn’t always immediately clear. For example:
People who drive electric vehicles are ____
Teenagers who spend a lot of time on social media feel ___
Starting off interviews with sentence completion exercises can help the moderator set the scene and step into the topic by understanding how people project an idea onto others – or themselves. They’re often used as a launching point for further discussion and inquiry in discussion guide questions.
Word association tests
Word association tests are also great when used toward the beginning of interviews: this helps set the scene and it invites the researcher into how people perceive ideas – before the researcher asks specifics.
Word association tests can be done in a variety of ways. One way is to simply write a phrase or word down on a board and have participants first write down any and all associations they have with the topic. The moderator encourages participants to write down every and anything that comes to mind – no wrong answers. The moderator then collects the ideas (if in a group) and leads a discussion. If it’s an individual interview, the moderator asks the participant to read them back, and then they discuss.
Another way is to have respondents immediately associate words or phrases that they have with certain brand products or names. This is great when trying to understand a competitive set.
Another way to use word association tests is to have participants describe an inanimate product and give it human characteristics or to associate descriptive adjectives with it. This is great when figuring out a brand’s personality or values.
Brand comparison exercises
Researchers have come up with all sorts of creative ways to have participants think about and compare brand attributes. One of my favorites is the “courtroom test.” This one is for use in focus groups, but you can also have an individual participant try it out and come up with both sides of the argument.
In this exercise, respondents are broken into two groups – prosecutors and defendants.
The defendants present the case for the brand or product and the prosecutors have to present a case against it. The moderator needs to set guidelines on how they argue – much like a judge – but, as one can imagine, this is a fantastic way to see how people might come up with negative and positive attributes, without directly being asked.
These are just a few examples of projective techniques!
There are whole books written on various projective techniques to try in research, so we won’t be exhaustive in this post, but hopefully this gives you an idea of how critical projective techniques are in qualitative research.