Only with Empathy Polarizing Topics can be Understood _ Series 2
4 min read

Projective techniques play a crucial role in enabling empathy to tackle rational or defensive answers during interviews, especially on polarizing topics like vaccinations.

In our previous article, we explained how we discovered that pro and anti-vaxxers are more alike than we think. They share a common vision and aspiration for society and an evolved vaccine system. In this article, we explain how we work to come to these insights.

When we talk to people about polarizing topics we use a set of specific projective techniques. When people are interviewed on a sensitive topic they often start with the intent to persuade or to protect themselves, showing up with prepared arguments and data. To have conversations beyond listening to arguments and statistics of anti-vaxxers and pro-vaxxers, we designed the following projective exercises:

Word association. We ask people to close their eyes and reflect the emotions/feelings/free association that comes to their mind when they hear the word ‘body’. This technique gives us insight into immediate reactions, personal connections, as well as an understanding of the language used. We ask them to complete this task quickly so we can capture initial thoughts before the response is rationalized.

Why does the word association work? This helps people break their barriers and discover images, emotions, and associations related to a specific topic. It requires them to answer in an instinctual way rather than a rational way.

Tip: Ask participants to sit comfortably, close their eyes, and breathe regularly. This gives them the mental and emotional space to answer the question. After a moment, ask them about their associations. Probe them to evoke images, emotions.

Body metaphor. We ask people to pick a metaphor to describe their body. We heard beautiful metaphors like, “my body is like a temple, it keeps what is essential for me,” or, “my body is active like a car, but needs maintenance once in a while.”

This technique is a more developed version of the word association. Here participants are presented with a sentence or a story that contains a blank and asked to fill in the missing word or words.

Why does the body metaphor work? This encourages creative thinking and can uncover thoughts and attitudes associated with various situations. It helps to break conventions and beliefs that people take for granted.

Tip: Ask people to describe what this metaphor means to them and how do they feel about it, rather than asking for a rational explanation.

Transparent Body. We have people imagine they have a magical power to see through everything in their body, the way it functions on the skin, the blood, the cell, on each organ. Then you ask them what happens when they inject or are exposed to the topic at hand. Have them describe in an imaginative, not scientific way, what happens.

Why does the Transparent Body work? When working with a concept or product that impacts the body, using the Transparent Body technique helps to get to people’s true feelings and understandings around the idea.

Tip: Give this one a bit of time. People need time to project this and to feel the impact, so don’t rush it.

Solar System. We made a solar system with “Vaccine” as our sun, and the planets were: politics, environment, science, science, society. We asked people to position the planets, with the most relevant being closest.

Why does the Solar System work? This helps to unveil the hidden influences, perceptions, concerns, and reasoning related to the vaccines and get a deeper understanding of the dynamics at play.

Tip: make it playful by using visualization as part of the technique to guide the process.

World With and Without. We ask people to think about the World With Vaccination and the World Without Vaccination, describing how that world looks, smells, what the people are like, how they interact, and how they live.

This exercise reveals and builds on deep desires and fears by asking people to imagine and describe a world without something dear to them.

Why does the World With/Without Work? The extraction or adding of an element forces people to choose to really imagine the impact of that element in their lives. It is pushing the boundaries of their imagination. It allows them to step away from logic, tapping into the emotions.

Tip: Make sure to explore nuances. Not making it a black and white picture.

Research is not just about asking straight questions that would lead to straight arguments. The verbally based process of interviewing limits the potential for imagination and creativity. There aren’t enough words for some of the more complex situations and feelings we encounter.

Projective techniques make it safer to talk about things that people are reluctant to talk about. Without the use of these techniques, research becomes superficial and inaccurate.

Stay tuned as another series about vaccines will come soon!


Moniek Tersmette, Jasmine Huang, Mai Huan-Maury