Projective Techniques: Do We Know What They Are Projecting?

November 15, 2013

A focus group moderator’s guide will often include group exercises or facilitation techniques as alternative approaches to direct questioning.  While many of these alternative tactics are not unique to the group discussion method, and are also used in in-depth intercollageview research, they have become a popular device in focus groups, esp., in the marketing research field.  These alternative approaches can be broadly categorized as either enabling or projective techniques, the difference being whether the moderator’s intent is to simply modify a direct question to make it easier for group participants to express their opinions (enabling techniques) or  delve into participants’ less conscious, less rational, less socially-acceptable feelings by way of indirect exercises (projective techniques).   Examples of enabling techniques are: sentence completion – e.g., “When I think of my favorite foods, I think of _____.” or “The best thing about the new city transit system is _____.”; word association – e.g., asking prospective college students, “What is the first word you think of when I say, ‘first day of college’?” or asking hospital administrators, “When I say ‘patient care’, what is the first word or words that come to mind?”; and storytelling – e.g., “Tell me a story about the last time you made something for dinner using leftovers.”

Projective techniques serve to depersonalize the discussion by moving away from direct questions specific to the research topic and instead ask participants to project their feelings by imagining the thoughts of others, role playing, and describing visual stimuli (such as images).  Completing thought bubbles on a cartoon drawing depicting genderless characters, and selecting from a stack of photographs the images that best represent how participants feel about a topic are just two examples of projective techniques.

The use of projective techniques is especially rampant among marketing researchers who increasingly (with the growing capabilities of online research) devise new variations of projective exercises.  However, from a quality-design perspective, the use of projective techniques can be problematic and begs the question of whether or how much projective techniques bring added value to the group discussion.  While enabling techniques are extensions of direct questioning that fall within the researcher’s natural skill set, the indirect method of projective exercises drifts into the little-known realm, among many social science researchers, of clinical psychology.  Regardless of whether focus group participants are given the opportunity to explain their own interpretation of their thought bubble, drawing, or picture sort – or whether the interpretation is left for the researcher – the inherent subjectivity of the meanings that are ultimately associated with participants’ output threatens the validity of these techniques.

The credibility of qualitative research data partially rests on knowing what is being measured, yet the short duration of a focus group session – and the moderator’s limited depth of knowledge about the participants – may make true interpretations of the data (and linkages back to the research objectives) from projective techniques a challenge.  What, for example, has the researcher measured from a collage exercise resulting in a collection of seemingly unrelated images from each of 10 group participants?  The moderator can investigate each participant’s interpretation of their “artwork” but the reality is that the focus group moderator does not have the capability of knowing whether the collage exercise tapped into an unconscious realization important to the research objectives, or knowing if the exercise measured aspects of the participant related to (for example) motivations, cultural background, or social awareness.

To maximize the credibility of focus group data stemming from the use of enabling and projective techniques, researchers must carefully select which techniques to use based on their ability to interpret the results in conjunction with the in-session time the moderator will be able to give to these exercises.  For instance, the researcher might opt for a smaller discussion format, such as dyads and triads, in order to accommodate the necessary time to complete a projective technique, such as a picture sort, including a thorough examination of each participant’s reasons for the photographs he or she selected as well as those that were rejected.  The careful use of these techniques will not only enhance data credibility but also increase the overall quality of the research by allowing the researcher to perform necessary verification procedures (such as triangulation) in the analysis phase.

8 Responses to “Projective Techniques: Do We Know What They Are Projecting?”

  1. […] considerations to particular facets of the research process, such as participant cooperation, the use of projective techniques, data validation, proposal writing, and the reporting of design in the final research […]

  2. […] December 5, 2013 at 14:07I appreciate your posting. Currently, I am building upon my previous work experience and knowledge of the focus group research method. Thank you for your insight. […]

  3. The tone of the article feels more critical / dubious projective techniques than I would be given my experiences. While answers to direct questions may be less subjective (still debatable), I feel there’s a limited set of direct questions that can be answered by people – among the reasons, expressing emotional ideas is difficult, people tend to simplify complex ideas, and not everyone is verbally articulate. So while the answer may appear less subjective, that doesn’t make it a quality answer. I would choose to make more time or choose a new setup (like suggested with fewer people).

    I would have liked the article to take more time to explain “the inherent subjectivity of the meanings”, to clarify. Maybe using examples would help. And several points about collages didn’t feel unique to that projective method. Analyzing images without asking “why” isn’t a good technique, but its not a reason to abandon collages. And the point about the “moderator does not have the capability of knowing whether the collage exercise tapped into an unconscious realization important to the research objectives, or knowing if the exercise measured aspects of the participant related to (for example) motivations, cultural background, or social awareness” doesn’t seem any more relevant to a collage than an answer to a direct question. How would the moderator know any better what the answer to a direct question taps into. There are definitely critiques to make of projective techniques, like any technique, but some of the comparisons here felt unfair.

    • Hello Taylor and thank you for your thoughtful comments. I very much appreciate your input.

      I absolutely agree that moderators/interviewers need to have a variety of techniques to explore issues that particularly inarticulate or shy individuals have a difficult time addressing. My concern however is that moderators/interviewers often do not have the credentials or the allotted time to truly understand what lies behind a projective exercise. They can ask “why” but then we’re back to direct questioning, in essence making the journey into the less-than-conscious a rational exercise.

      When the moderator/interviewer does not have the ability or capability to really delve into a person’s psyche and connect the dots — yes, including for example how cultural background, social awareness/stature, motivations relate to the research objectives and constructs — the outcomes are unclear. This is the “subjectivity of the meanings” that I speak.

      On the other hand, projectives can often work very well with a qualified moderator/interviewer working with just one or a few individuals for an extended period of time and who incorporates projective exercises with other techniques (including direct questioning) in order to conduct verification such as deviant cases in the analysis. An all-encompassing analytical approach that incorporates outcomes from the host of well-executed techniques can prove very beneficial to the final interpretations/implications from the research.

  4. I appreciate you posting. Currently, I am building upon my previous work experience and knowledge of the focus group research method. Thank you for your insight.

    I have used photo elicitation during the interview process and it worked wonderfully on an individual basis. When I incorporated this method into a focus group project, we had a small group of four and five groups repeated over time. We used this projective technique using less than 10 photos. Even this became a daunting task for the moderator. The result–we had to schedule interviews later. What is your knowledge on whether or not short videos would be more effective? If you could offer insight on the use of video.

    • Thank you, Sheila, for your feedback. Video is an interesting idea but, on the face of it, I wonder if you wouldn’t run into the same issues you had with still photos. Can you give me more details of how you would use video in a group?

      • Hi Margaret, I have only used video along with note-taking to record the focus group sessions. I have been curious about using soundbites or less-than-30-seconds video pieces showing completed social actions. Of course, maintaining homogeneity, based on the members of the group. I suspect that having several iPads available containing the bits of video, so the participants can view simultaneously. I have not tried this, but would like to if a research question came about that could use such a technique. One example I can think of relevant to my background would be a policy and program evaluation of anti-bullying programs in a state involving the use of the focus group research method. Using the bits of video to show different kinds of bullying (e.g. gender, sexual orientation, age) to pinpoint what types of bullying are most common and then to investigate what types of interventions are needed for the specific bullying behaviors. Your guidance on this possibility is appreciated.

      • Hello Sheila – I think this use of video (to evaluate anti-bullying intervention) is a useful idea. I assume that a determination of the most prevalent types of bullying would be made by the client/sponsor by way of video (although ethical issues would need to be considered and dealt with), and then some portion of those videos would be shown to focus group participants. As I said, I think this is a good use of video in a group setting; however, I don’t think you gain anything by presenting the video via individual iPads and, as the moderator, I would much prefer that everyone was looking at a screen where I was projecting the videos and had some control over what people were seeing/doing while discussing each segment.

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