Thought Leadership

Superpowers and Princesses: A Three-Minute Lesson on Projective Exercises

January 30, 2019
Superpowers & Princesses

Projective exercises—the presentation of calibrated stimuli onto which a respondent projects their feelings, attitudes or beliefs—are a critical asset in the qualitative researcher’s emotional toolbox. The technique offers the promise of achieving greater depth and validity of insight by facilitating expression of subconscious or difficult-to-articulate feelings that are less accessible using direct “Q&A.”

But what makes for a good projective exercise?

We put learning into action at a recent market research conference by testing a series of probes that revealed some lessons about projectives.

First, we asked visitors to our booth to help us learn about, “What makes great qualitative research.” We then invited them to post onto a chalkboard their reactions to a probe related to the goal of understanding how to deliver great qualitative research. Our lesson on projectives focuses on contrasting two of several probes that we asked:

  1. What is your qualitative superpower?
  2. What Disney princess would make a great moderator?

Before reading on, what do you notice about these questions? Is one easier for you to answer? Do you suspect one would elicit superior insights vs. the other? Let’s explore what we observed and discuss why one question might better achieve the promise of projective techniques.

What is your qualitative superpower?

This question elicited some interesting responses including humor, empathy, x-ray vision, color coding stuff, cat herding, shoe wearing, connections, fortune-telling and brainstorming solutions.

Participants took time with this question, contemplated it with seriousness and their answers were well thought out before they were posted. While you might be tempted to say, “Yes! This is a good, thought-provoking projective exercise!” think again. This question was difficult, and maybe even a little intimidating, for our fellow market researchers to answer. Starting with body language, respondents tended to step back or to the side when hearing the question. Further, most were unable to answer spontaneously and didn’t necessarily choose a response that was instinctual.  Rather, they were apt to carefully articulate a response that others would judge as “correct.” Finally, some shook their heads and walked away without answering.

But why? The answer is that this is a very personal way of probing into “what makes great qualitative research.” The question looks like a projective (given the superpower content), but it’s not because it lacks an object for respondents to project their emotions and thoughts onto. Participants were being asked to directly and publicly reveal a personal quality (a power) that is also open to judgment (the power was supposed to be “super” after all). As a result, the probe created tension and triggered guarded, rational brain/slow thinking and filtered responding that was influenced by self-presentation bias.

This scenario points out an often-overlooked quality of effective projective exercises: True projective exercises are ego-protective. That is, the respondent should be able to answer without worrying about what others will say or that there is a right or wrong answer. Offering an ambiguous object onto which personal traits or feelings are projected creates a safe environment that helps participants access their subconscious and raise it to the surface, priming them for deeper, more emotionally centered insight. By way of analogy, projective exercises are similar to the safe space that is created when a person asks for advice for an issue that their “friend” is having, when in reality, the issue is theirs but they are uncomfortable admitting they’re having a problem.

What Disney princess would make a great moderator?

Answers included a wide range of princesses, including: Mulan (bold), Esmerelda (tolerant), Belle (inquisitive), Jasmine (intuitive), Merida (determined, curious) and Cinderella (caring). We also had one respondent who didn’t relate well to princesses but offered Dory from Finding Nemo (keeps asking and asking and asking questions).

The princess question was far easier for participants to answer and was candidly much more fun! Respondents didn’t need to think or process to come up with the name of a princess—they knew one immediately. In terms of body language, participants tended to lean in, smile and emote enthusiasm. This was a sharp contrast to the body language and manner of responding elicited by the superpower question.

Upon probing as to why a particular princess (or fish) was chosen, rational processing took over and some participants needed a bit of time to search for the rationale for their choices. And that’s fine. The projective device did its job of acting as a prime that helped participants discover and articulate the reasons behind their nomination.

Overall, this question is a truer projective exercise that triggered the fast thinking/emotional part of the brain, which is what properly constructed projective exercises do.

What did we learn?

In summary, our learnings suggest that an effective projective exercise:

  1. Is phrased indirectly, offering the ego protection of an object or image that participants can project their feelings and thoughts onto.
  2. Triggers an immediate response, accessing the fast-thinking, subconscious part of the brain.
  3. Makes emotions more accessible to participants, facilitating exploration of the whys behind the immediate response.
  4. Is not about the creative device used. Superpowers, princesses, aliens or nature pictures can all be effective stimuli if the questions asked about them are crafted carefully, but can also be ineffective if worded improperly.

So, how can we apply this knowledge to rescue our superpower question? It’s a subtle change that’s as simple as making this direct question indirect. For example, “If you could create a qualitative superhero, which superpower(s) would he or she have?”

I hope you enjoyed this three-minute lesson and that it has helped to strengthen your personal qualitative superpowers!

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Dawn Palace
Dawn Palace, Ph.D.
Senior Vice President, Health

Dawn Palace is a former senior vice president in the Health research division at Escalent.