Projective techniques are a commonly used but highly controversial method of conducting qualitative research. Projective testing techniques were originally developed in the 1960s for use in the field of clinical psychology. In the domain of psychology, they refer to a type of personality test that exposes participants to a series of ambiguous stimuli such as images or words. The purpose of projective tests is to evoke emotional responses from the participant in order to study their attitudes, traits, and behaviour. These tests are expected to reveal an individual’s unconscious desires and apprehensions. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman opined that the human brain makes thousands of decisions every single day. These include small decisions such as what to wear, what to eat, which route to take to work, etc., and more complex decisions such as purchasing a new car or moving to a new city or ending a relationship. If our brain were to process all of these decisions consciously it would become easily overburdened with information. Therefore, several decisions and the motivations that inspire them, are processed in our unconscious mind. People may not always be consciously aware of the unconscious motivations behind their actions. The information gathered from projective testing is used by psychotherapists to gauge the causes of an individual’s mental turmoil and consequently design appropriate interventions. Projective techniques are also popular in conducting market research aimed at understanding consumer behaviour.
How do Projective Tests Work?
Projective testing involves exposing an examinee to a series of ambiguous stimuli (e.g. an image) and asking them to provide their unique individual responses upon perceiving the stimuli. This is done in order to prevent biases on the part of the examinee. The ambiguity of the stimuli does not give the person any hints as to what an acceptable answer to the question is, which is the case with other structured forms of psychological testing. For example, in interviews or self-reports, individuals tend to provide answers that may be more socially acceptable and may even alter their responses based on how they react to their answers. On the other hand, ambiguous stimuli cause people to reveal their true feelings, which are considered a more reliable measure of their unconscious thoughts and behaviour.
Types of Projective Techniques
Projective techniques can be divided into five broad categories –
- Association Techniques –
Association techniques are when a participant is required to give instant responses to the stimuli presented to them. There is great emphasis on the immediacy of responses in association techniques. The Rorschach Test is an example of an association technique wherein the subjects respond to a series of inkblot images. These images contain determinants such as colour, shade, form, movement and reflection which help examiners determine the reasons behind individual responses. Their answers are then interpreted and analysed psychologically. The word association technique (WAT) is another kind of association exercise during which the subject is presented with a series of unrelated words. They have to respond to each word with their first thoughts upon hearing them. Cognitive psychologists also use WAT to study how semantic information is stored and retrieved by the mind.
- Construction Techniques –
Construction techniques go beyond just reacting to stimuli and instead require participants to create something out of them. These creations could be stories or images. The Thematic Appreciation Test (TAT), perhaps one of the most popular projective techniques in use, is a type of construction technique. The test participants are shown cards that contain black-and-white images, and the subjects are required to construct a story based on what they perceive/infer from the image. The storyline and plot are used to make inferences about the deep-seated desires and needs of the examinee.
- Completion Techniques –
Completion techniques present their subjects with any form of incomplete product and ask that their subjects fill in the blanks in whichever way they please so long as their responses meet certain standards of rationality. The sentence completion test is the most popularly used completion technique that asks its examinees to complete incomplete sentences using the first words that come to mind. Examiners then conduct a subjective analysis to determine conflicts, attitudes and motivations of the examinees.
- Choice/Ordering Techniques (Arrangement & Selection Tests) –
In this technique, the respondents are asked to choose from a set of alternatives belonging to the same group (images, words, etc.) OR to put a group into order. For example, the Picture Arrangement Test presents examinees with a series of images that show a figure involved in different activities. The examinee’s task is to arrange these images in order of how they believe the sequence of events occurred.
- Expression Techniques –
Expressive techniques require their subjects to use a stimulus as a prompt for self-expression – role-playing, theatrics, dance, etc. For example, drawing and painting are expressive techniques that are studied qualitatively as indicators of personality traits. Those evaluating the tests pay attention to the figures used in the drawings, their sizes, their positions, etc.
The findings of projective techniques are interpreted and evaluated subjectively rather than objectively. Most individual tests also tend to have interpretation manuals.
Advantages of Projective Tests
- Projective tests allow people to express their thoughts and ideas without the fear of judgement or social constraints, as is the case with structured testing methods such as questionnaires or formal interviews.
- When people are able to express themselves more freely by giving responses to ambiguous stimuli, psychologists can study subconscious and unconscious mechanisms which can help them understand problems of a more personal or sensitive nature.
Disadvantages of Projective Tests
- Due to the ambiguity of the stimuli and the unstructured nature of this technique, highly qualified professionals and experts are required to administer and determine the results of projective tests.
- Rigorous interviewing and analysis is required to draw conclusions from projective techniques. This, coupled with the need for trained professionals, makes it an extremely expensive process.
- Projective techniques also come with the risk of interpretation bias. This means that the people interpreting and analysing the responses of the examinees could misinterpret the results and perhaps assume that a benign response is seemingly hostile.
- Drawing inaccurate inferences from projective tests could seriously harm the examinee because it could point towards personality flaws or shortcomings.
Given their complex and unstructured nature, projective testing techniques should be used carefully. They could prove to be especially useful in conducting exploratory research in order to gain initial insights. They are also important in cases where the use of structured methods will not provide professionals with the required information.
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