A Sideways View

New stirrings in business psychology

Projective Techniques

Can what you see in an inkblot or how you complete a sentence reveal anything?

Ever wondered why psychologists use inkblots? Would chicken entrails do as well? Or the tea leaves so rarely seen in our tea-bagged society? What’s the theory?

The Swiss psychologist Rorschach invented the ink-blot technique. It still has a small and evidence-defying cult following. The idea is simple, but the interpretation of the “data” unreliable and complex. The ink-blot is called in the jargon a projective technique. The idea is that one projects onto the ink-blot shapes one's motives, needs, fears and the like which one cannot articulate--to oneself or others. Supposedly the skilled and trained researcher can do the correct reading. It can reveal suppressed and powerful emotions and motives.

Most of us have probably during adolescence been exposed to a party game projective technique. You are on a walk, and going through a forest. You come across a stream/river. Please describe it. Next to the river is a hut. Again describe it. Ahead of you is a road through the forest. What is it like?

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The budding psychologist does the interpretation. Whatever you say (the river is deep, the river is shallow, the river has rocks) is deeply symbolic of our frustrated unconscious needs for sex, power, or domination. A simple game apparently says more about you than you know yourself. It is not only your cleverly hidden secrets, but things you don’t know about yourself that appear to emerge from projective technique analysis.

The idea behind this technique is that people cannot, rather than will not, tell you your real needs, drives and fears. This is not a matter of will or ability.

We don’t have sufficient insight into our real needs. Most of us know of individuals who genuinely believe they have a sense of humour. Everyone around them knows they don’t. Whence the difference? Others can think they are caring and empathic when the evidence is that they are egocentric and disagreeable. There is considerable evidence that many people are simply not very self-aware as to their abilities, preferences, and impact on others.

There are two other more recent and scientifically more respectable projective techniques. The first dates back to before the war and is called the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT). It consists of twenty or so pictures. You are shown them one at a time and your job is to tell a short story associated with each. These are transcribed and coded for themes about need for affiliation, need for power, need for achievement, etc.

The first picture is a little boy looking at a violin. But what is your story? An unhappy little boy forced to go to violin lessons by a tyrannical mother when he would rather be playing conkers? A sad little deaf boy knowing he will never hear the sweet music of the violin? A triumphant little boy who has mastered a tune before his peers?

Then the next picture and so on. All are obviously from another era, and many rather beautiful. None is racy, but number 13 is most interesting. A women (possibly naked) lies on a bed/sofa shrouded by a see-through curtain; a fully dressed man peers out of the window. What is your version of events? Tell your story which will be very carefully content-analysed by an expert.

There is one other technique which has also done the rounds. It’s called Sentence Completion. Strictly speaking it is only a partial projective technique because it is more transparent than either the Rorschach or the TAT. You are given, say, twenty sentences to complete. They may be simple like: “Most people’s suffering is due to…”; “I wish I had never…”; “I am still extremely proud of…” to more complex short stories that require completion.

Critics of projective technique say they are deeply unreliable in two senses of the word. First, a person’s mood seems to affect their responses, so they give rather different answers at different times. This cannot then give us a veridical picture of their profound, stable, deep-seated needs. Second, and more important, scoring is unreliable. Even two experts don’t seem to agree on the “real meaning” of the output.

Scientists say that what is unreliable cannot be valid. So projective techniques inhabit a twilight world between cult and science; between old and new techniques; between the past and future of psychometrics.

But despite all this, one fact remains patently true. Getting at a person’s motivations is difficult. Every manager wants to know what motivates their staff. They want to know the magic buttons so that they can press them. Most recognise there are wide individual differences. And the clever ones know that money and titles are but part of the story.

Motivation is about force and direction. Just as there are fundamental differences in libido – motivation or appetite for sex – so they are at work. Some people are driven. They always have been; they always will be. Maybe they are driven by being rather short or uneducated; maybe they are driven by a clearly preferred and successful sibling; maybe they are driven to fulfil long- suppressed and forgotten parental expectations.

The light can be bright or dim. Some people are more hungry than others. But for what and why? What drives people to try to make more and more money; more than they could ever spend; what drives them to repeat disastrous relationships again and again; why are people so obsessed by trivial things like job titles?

It is certainly true that many people cannot tell you. They can offer descriptions and explanations and may even be practiced in the art, but they ring hollow to the informed outsider.

A good counsellor, coach, or psychologist might help. Those with insightful, psychological mindedness can assist. Some seek insight; others avoid it. It is said that many comics shun analysts lest they take away that drive; their edge; their special power. Their very “raison d’être” is destroyed by self-insight into why they think and act as they do.

All very interesting, but how does this help the selector in the day-to-day business of trying to choose managers who are able and driven to achieve? Not much, alas. But it does quite strongly warn to dig a little deeper, to look for patterns and not to be satisfied with glib answers.

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at University College London and the Norwegian Business School.

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