The Subjectivity of Focus Groups and Ink Blot Tests
Companies need to understand how people see their products and what they want, so asking customers about this in a focus group seems like a great idea. Focus groups can provide a valuable form of qualitative research, giving companies insight into consumers’ beliefs, desires, and attitudes surrounding a product. However, while focus groups can provide some insight, the history of projective tests (aka ink blot tests) in psychology offer a cautionary tale on solely relying on this kind of self-reported qualitative data.
Beginning in the early 20th century psychologists and psychiatrists developed projective tests to diagnose mental disorders and gain access to patients’ unconscious beliefs and desires. These tests, based on Freud’s theory of projection, were thought to allow unconscious beliefs and desires to surface through their open-ended structure, which was believed to be less threatening to people. In a projective test, someone is shown a set of ambiguous or abstract images that can be interpreted in many ways (the most famous example is the Rorschach ink blots, commonly portrayed in psychological examinations in movies), and they are asked to talk about what they see and what the images make them think of. It was believed that people will project their subconscious thoughts (desires, beliefs, etc.) onto the image, thereby revealing hidden parts of their personality that could then be analyzed and interpreted by the psychiatrist administering the test.