History of Projective Tests

Motivation Research: Where It All Began

The introduction of anthropological, psychological, and sociological approaches to consumerism offered new insights into shopper behavior.

During the 1920s and 30s several influential people ignited changes in marketing and advertising that would last forever. The introduction of anthropological, psychological, and sociological approaches to consumerism offered new insights into shopper behavior. The ensuing movement to dig deeper into buyer motives became generally known as motivation research (MR). While MR is classically associated with qualitative research—thanks to the likes of Ernest Dichter—in fact many researchers used both quantitative and qualitative approaches. 

Regardless, the main staple of a motivation researcher was leveraging a mix of techniques to probe the real reasons why consumers buy (Soley, 2010). Though the motivation research movement peaked in the mid 1950s, the principles behind it still dictate the Western consumer culture we see today (Malherek, 2014). Additionally, many of the MR techniques—ranging from depth interviews to projective tests—are still alive and well used in consumer research. 

Where Did It All Begin?

The creation of the motivation research movement is credited to Austrian researcher Paul Lazarsfeld, PhD (Fullerton, 2015). However, someone else applied psychological principles to understand the motivations behind marketing before Lazarsfeld even set foot in America. Edward Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud, revolutionized public relations in the year 1929 when he launched a campaign to encourage women to smoke (Held, 2009). Bernay’s connection between products, attitudes, and emotions would set the tone for the coming decade, where Austrian researchers like Lazarsfeld and Dichter would change the way corporate America approached consumer behavior. 

Around the same time that Bernays was making waves in America, Paul Lazarsfeld innovated an empirical approach for “applied psychology among business” in Europe (Samuel, 2013, p. 22). Lazarsfeld utilized in-depth interviews and statistics to explore consumer’s experiences, points-of-view, and attitudes towards products in a variety of settings, from retail displays to radio listeners (Lazarsfeld, 1933). 

Shortly thereafter, Lazarsfeld moved to America and began establishing a literary presence in both business and academic publications on the psychological aspects of marketing research (Lazarsfeld, 1934 & 1935). In The Art of Asking Why In Marketing Research, Lazarsfeld implored market researchers to avoid the pitfall of assuming the consumer understands—and is willing and able to report on—the entire range of factors that influence a purchasing decision. He argued that the market researcher needed to map out what media influenced people to act, what attributes of a product (taste, color, etc) led to a purchase, and even how the consumer’s cognitive style influenced the act. For example, did the consumer impulsively purchase the product, or did they consider alternatives? This type of cognitive style, called conceptual tempo, would eventually be coined by Harvard researcher Jerome Kagan in 1963 (Kagan et. al., 1963). Lazarsfeld was prescient in determining that a myriad of psychological factors lying below the threshold of the consumer’s everyday awareness accounted for their decision making. His technique was framed around creating questions that mirrored the patterns of experience in the consumer so that the motives behind their actions could be fleshed out into the open (Lazarsfeld, 1935). He advocated for the use of what would become known as the depth interview—multiple hour open-ended interviews intended for revealing attitudes, opinion, and interests in a conversational manner—to steer marketers away from simple yes or no questions (Lazarsfeld, 1944). 

In doing so, Lazarsfeld put an end to the rational consumer model, and began the motivation research movement. However, perhaps his most significant contribution to the MR movement was helping a former student (and fellow Austrian) land a job in America.


Kagan, J., Moss, H. A., & Sigel, I. E. (1963). Psychological Significance of Styles of Conceptualization. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 28(2), p. 73–112.

Fullerton, R. (2015). The beginnings of motivation research, 1934-1954: a prequel to Fullerton 2013. Journal of Historical Research in Marketing. Vol 7, p. 509-523.

Held, L. (2009). Psychoanalysis shapes consumer culture. Monitor on Psychology, 40(11).

Lazarsfeld, P. (1933).  Show Buying in Zurich. Journal of the Academy of. Marketing Science 18, no. 4 (1990), p. 319-328.

Lazarsfeld, P. (1934). The Psychological Aspect of Marketing Research. Harvard Business Review 13(1): p. 54–71.

Lazarsfeld, P.  (1935). The art of Asking WHY in Marketing Research. National Marketing Review 1: p. 32–43.

Lazarsfeld, P. F. (1944). The Controversy Over Detailed Interviews-An Offer for Negotiation. The Public Opinion Quarterly, 8(1), p. 38–60.

Malherek, J. (2014). Ernest Dichter and American Market Research, 1946-77. Market Research & American Business, 1935-1965, Marlborough: Adam Matthew. 

Samuel, L. R. (2013). Freud on Madison Avenue: Motivation research and subliminal advertising in America. Amazon. 

Soley, L. (2010). Projective techniques in us marketing and management research: The influence of The Achievement Motive. Qualitative Market Research: An International Journal, 13(4), p. 334–353.

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