Why Projective Techniques In Marketing Research Work: Evidence from Neuroscience


Projective techniques are used by marketing researchers to reveal important connections to brands, products, and services that originate with unconscious biases, attitudes, motivations, and emotions.  Some common projective techniques used in marketing research 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, but they are also used in digital and in-person quantitative research as well.


Neuroscience explains why projective techniques work. The discipline sheds light on why projective techniques yield unconscious, emotional human responses whereas traditional marketing research tends to emphasize rational and cognitive responses.



Many things happen in our brains of which we are unaware.  Research subjects viewing rapid screen picture displays lasting only 0.03 second report no image awareness. But in later tests these same subjects score well above chance when asked to pick target pictures from a larger collection, showing that the pictures impacted memory without the subject’s awareness. Essentially the same process is repeated in our daily lives. Much of our knowledge, skills, experiences, and prejudices are acquired with no awareness of external input to our brains.

Hitting baseballs or playing musical instruments require intricate control of muscles carrying out complex tasks in series of steps. Yet they occur automatically in experienced players, outside of awareness. These tasks require a part of the mind that we cannot be fully aware of, but one that still exerts critical influences on thoughts and actions. Creativity also appears to originate with unconscious mental processes; solutions to difficult problems may appear to “pop out” of nowhere after an incubation period in the unconscious. Intuitive feelings or hunches are apparently based on the unconscious sensing something without common reasoning. Acting without good reason might seem like a dubious life strategy; however, we encounter many fuzzy situations where choices must be made with very limited information. If our source of intuition is actually an experienced unconscious, following hunches seems to constitute a strategy far superior to random choices.

While the existence of unconscious brain processes is well established, there is much argument over the actual role of unconscious mind. In Sigmund Freud’s view “the unconscious” does not include all that is not conscious; it consists only of knowledge that the conscious mind does not want to know. The conscious mind then actively represses this knowledge so that the two parts of consciousness are often in conflict. Many modern scientists disagree with Freud’s model and assign different roles or less importance to the unconscious. Nevertheless, many instances have been reported in which “people see what they want to see.” In psychology experiments, subjects shown an especially disturbing picture may report seeing something quite different. Different witnesses to a crime may provide widely disparate reports to police and so forth.



The terms “unconscious” and “subconscious” are employed by cognitive scientists. Modern science says that Freud was quite right to emphasize the importance of the unconscious, but that many of his more narrow views are wrong. A more modern interpretation of the unconscious is simply a lack of awareness regardless of the reason. By contrast, the label “subconscious” often indicates that part of the unconscious that more clearly and directly influences conscious behavior. The unconscious mind then represents a composite of things that one sees and hears but does not consciously process. The unconscious mind stores this information, which can be retrieved later by the conscious mind when needed. Whenever the conscious mind is occupied, all other information must apparently wait its turn in “storage” of some sort.  Parts of the unconscious may be viewed as incompletely formed consciousness, that is, subconscious processes from which consciousness may emerge later. Other parts of our unconscious remain forever hidden from awareness but may exert important influences on our conscious mind—they affect our choices to act in certain ways. Interactions occur in both directions; the conscious mind may influence the unconscious and vice versa.



In this picture, our brains are hosts to a collection of unconscious systems that constantly monitor the world and assign values to this information; these values guide our attention and shape our thinking. Some scientists suggest that this process seems to involve a division of labor analogous to an army of workers in some office basement that do the dirty work of shifting through massive amounts of raw data. “Executives” at the top make then the final decisions. But, just what are these mysterious executives and how do they arrive at decisions? While science does not yet have answers to these basic questions, marketing researchers may still employ various methods to shed light on attitudes and beliefs that are below conscious awareness. In particular, projective techniques facilitate connections to brands and product or service preferences that stem from beliefs, attitudes, motivations and emotions in which consumers are not consciously aware.

Projective techniques are tools that get us closer to the bottom line of these deeper emotions and cognitions. These techniques are useful in branding research and tend to yield rich and accurate information, especially when the goal is to understand deep emotional connections toward brands, products and services.



Paul L. Nunez, Ph.D. is Vice President of Neuroscience Applications at Q2 Insights, Inc., a research and innovation consulting firm with offices in San Diego and New Orleans.  Paul is also Emeritus Professor, Tulane University and the author of four books on the neuroscience of EEG published by Oxford University Press and over 100 peer reviewed academic papers on the same topic.  Paul’s most recent and fifth book is The New Science of Consciousness: Exploring the Complexity of Brain, Mind, and Self, Prometheus Books, November 8, 2016.  He can be reached at (760) 230-2950 ext. 1 or at paul.nunez@q2insights.com.

This entry was posted in Tools and Techniques and tagged on November 28, 2016 by Q2 Insights