Thematic Apperception Test

Thematic Apperception Test 793
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The Thematic Apperception Test, or TAT, is a projective measure intended to evaluate a person's patterns of thought, attitudes, observational capacity, and emotional responses to ambiguous test materials. In the case of the TAT, the ambiguous materials consist of a set of cards that portray human figures in a variety of settings and situations. The subject is asked to tell the examiner a story about each card that includes the following elements: the event shown in the picture; what has led up to it; what the characters in the picture are feeling and thinking; and the outcome of the event.

Because the TAT is an example of a projective instrument— that is, it asks the subject to project his or her habitual patterns of thought and emotional responses onto the pictures on the cards— many psychologists prefer not to call it a "test," because it implies that there are "right" and "wrong" answers to the questions. They consider the term "technique" to be a more accurate description of the TAT and other projective assessments.


Individual assessments

The TAT is often administered to individuals as part of a battery, or group, of tests intended to evaluate personality. It is considered to be effective in eliciting information about a person's view of the world and his or her attitudes toward the self and others. As people taking the TAT proceed through the various story cards and tell stories about the pictures, they reveal their expectations of relationships with peers, parents or other authority figures, subordinates, and possible romantic partners. In addition to assessing the content of the stories that the subject is telling, the examiner evaluates the subject's manner, vocal tone, posture, hesitations, and other signs of an emotional response to a particular story picture. For example, a person who is made anxious by a certain picture may make comments about the artistic style of the picture, or remark that he or she does not like the picture; this is a way of avoiding telling a story about it.

The TAT is often used in individual assessments of candidates for employment in fields requiring a high degree of skill in dealing with other people and/or ability to cope with high levels of psychological stress— such as law enforcement, military leadership positions, religious ministry, education, diplomatic service, etc. Although the TAT should not be used in the differential diagnosis of mental disorders, it is often administered to individuals who have already received a diagnosis in order to match them with the type of psychotherapy best suited to their personalities. Lastly, the TAT is sometimes used for forensic purposes in evaluating the motivations and general attitudes of persons accused of violent crimes. For example, the TAT was recently administered to a 24-year-old man in prison for a series of sexual murders. The results indicated that his attitudes toward other people are not only outside normal limits but are similar to those of other persons found guilty of the same type of crime.

The TAT can be given repeatedly to an individual as a way of measuring progress in psychotherapy or, in some cases, to help the therapist understand why the treatment seems to be stalled or blocked.


In addition to its application in individual assessments, the TAT is frequently used for research into specific aspects of human personality, most often needs for achievement, fears of failure, hostility and aggression, and interpersonal object relations. "Object relations" is a phrase used in psychiatry and psychology to refer to the ways people internalize their relationships with others and the emotional tone of their relationships. Research into object relations using the TAT investigates a variety of different topics, including the extent to which people are emotionally involved in relationships with others; their ability to understand the complexities of human relationships; their ability to distinguish between their viewpoint on a situation and the perspectives of others involved; their ability to control aggressive impulses; self-esteem issues; and issues of personal identity. For example, one recent study compared responses to the TAT from a group of psychiatric inpatients diagnosed with dissociative disorders with responses from a group of non-dissociative inpatients, in order to investigate some of the controversies about dissociative identity disorder (formerly called multiple personality disorder).


Students in medicine, psychology, or other fields who are learning to administer and interpret the TAT receive detailed instructions about the number of factors that can influence a person's responses to the story cards. In general, they are advised to be conservative in their interpretations, and to err "on the side of health" rather than of psychopathology when evaluating a subject's responses. In addition, the 1992 Code of Ethics of the American Psychological Association requires examiners to be knowledgeable about cultural and social differences, and to be responsible in interpreting test results with regard to these differences.

Experts in the use of the TAT recommend obtaining a personal and medical history from the subject before giving the TAT, in order to have some context for evaluating what might otherwise appear to be abnormal or unusual responses. For example, frequent references to death or grief in the stories would not be particularly surprising from a subject who had recently been bereaved. In addition, the TAT should not be used as the sole examination in evaluating an individual; it should be combined with other interviews and tests.

Cultural, gender, and class issues

The large number of research studies that have used the TAT have indicated that cultural, gender, and class issues must be taken into account when determining whether a specific response to a story card is "abnormal" strictly speaking, or whether it may be a normal response from a person in a particular group. For example, the card labeled 6GF shows a younger woman who is seated turning toward a somewhat older man who is standing behind her and smoking a pipe. Most male subjects do not react to this picture as implying aggressiveness, but most female subjects regard it as a very aggressive picture, with unpleasant overtones of intrusiveness and danger. Many researchers consider the gender difference in responses to this card as a reflection of the general imbalance in power between men and women in the larger society.

In the TAT, the test subject (the boy shown here) examines a set of cards that portray human figures in a variety of settings and situations, and is asked to tell a story about each card. The story includes the event shown in the picture, preceding events, emotions and thoughts of those portrayed, and the outcome of the event shown. The story content and structure are thought to reveal the subject's attitudes, inner conflicts, and views. (Lew Merrim/Science Source. Photo Researchers, Inc. Reproduced by permission.)
In the TAT, the test subject (the boy shown here) examines a set of cards that portray human figures in a variety of settings and situations, and is asked to tell a story about each card. The story includes the event shown in the picture, preceding events, emotions and thoughts of those portrayed, and the outcome of the event shown. The story content and structure are thought to reveal the subject's attitudes, inner conflicts, and views.
(Lew Merrim/Science Source. Photo Researchers, Inc. Reproduced by permission.)

Race is another issue related to the TAT story cards. The original story cards, which were created in 1935, all involved Caucasian figures. As early as 1949, researchers who were administering the TAT to African Americans asked whether the race of the figures in the cards would influence the subjects' responses. Newer sets of TAT story cards have introduced figures representing a wider variety of races and ethnic groups. As of 2002, however, it is not clear whether a subject's ability to identify with the race of the figures in the story cards improves the results of a TAT assessment.

Multiplicity of scoring systems

One precaution required in general assessment of the TAT is the absence of a normative scoring system for responses. The original scoring system devised in 1943 by Henry Murray, one of the authors of the TAT, attempted to account for every variable that it measures. Murray's scoring system is time-consuming and unwieldy, and as a result has been little used by later interpreters. Other scoring systems have since been introduced that focus on one or two specific variables—for example, hostility or depression. While these systems are more practical for clinical use, they lack comprehensiveness. No single system presently used for scoring the TAT has achieved widespread acceptance. The basic drawback of any scoring system in evaluating responses to the TAT story cards is that information that is not relevant to that particular system is simply lost.

Computer scoring

A recent subject of controversy in TAT interpretation concerns the use of computers to evaluate responses. While computers were used initially only to score tests with simple yes/no answers, they were soon applied to interpretation of projective measures. A computerized system for interpreting the Rorschach was devised as early as 1964. As of 2002, there are no computerized systems for evaluating responses to the TAT; however, users of the TAT should be aware of the controversies in this field. Computers have two basic limitations for use with the TAT: the first is that they cannot observe and record the subject's vocal tone, eye contact, and other aspects of behavior that a human examiner can note. Second, computers are not adequate for the interpretation of unusual subject profiles.


The TAT is one of the oldest projective measures in continuous use. It has become the most popular projective technique among English-speaking psychiatrists and psychologists, and is better accepted among clinicians than the Rorschach.

History of the TAT

The TAT was first developed in 1935 by Henry Murray, Christiana Morgan, and their colleagues at the Harvard Psychological Clinic. The early versions of the TAT listed Morgan as the first author, but later versions dropped her name. One of the controversies surrounding the history of the TAT concerns the long and conflict-ridden extramarital relationship between Morgan and Murray, and its reinforcement of the prejudices that existed in the 1930s against women in academic psychology and psychiatry.

It is generally agreed, however, that the basic idea behind the TAT came from one of Murray's undergraduate students. The student mentioned that her son had spent his time recuperating from an illness by cutting pictures out of magazines and making up stories about them. The student wondered whether similar pictures could be used in therapy to tap into the nature of a patient's fantasies.


The TAT is usually administered to individuals in a quiet room free from interruptions or distractions. The subject sits at the edge of a table or desk next to the examiner. The examiner shows the subject a series of story cards taken from the full set of 31 TAT cards. The usual number of cards shown to the subject is between 10 and 14, although Murray recommended the use of 20 cards, administered in two separate one-hour sessions with the subject. The original 31 cards were divided into three categories, for use with men only, with women only, or for use with subjects of either sex. Recent practice has moved away from the use of separate sets of cards for men and women.

The subject is then instructed to tell a story about the picture on each card, with specific instructions to include a description of the event in the picture, the developments that led up to the event, the thoughts and feelings of the people in the picture, and the outcome of the story. The examiner keeps the cards in a pile face down in front of him or her, gives them to the subject one at a time, and asks the subject to place each card face down as its story is completed. Administration of the TAT usually takes about an hour.


Murray's original practice was to take notes by hand on the subject's responses, including his or her nonverbal behaviors. Research has indicated, however, that a great deal of significant material is lost when notes are recorded in this way. As a result, some examiners now use a tape recorder to record subjects' answers. Another option involves asking the subject to write down his or her answers.


There are two basic approaches to interpreting responses to the TAT, called nomothetic and idiographic respectively. Nomothetic interpretation refers to the practice of establishing norms for answers from subjects in specific age, gender, racial, or educational level groups and then measuring a given subject's responses against those norms. Idiographic interpretation refers to evaluating the unique features of the subject's view of the world and relationships. Most psychologists would classify the TAT as better suited to idiographic than nomothetic interpretation.

In interpreting responses to the TAT, examiners typically focus their attention on one of three areas: the content of the stories that the subject tells; the feeling or tone of the stories; or the subject's behaviors apart from responses. These behaviors may include verbal remarks (for example, comments about feeling stressed by the situation or not being a good storyteller) as well as nonverbal actions or signs (blushing, stammering, fidgeting in the chair, difficulties making eye contact with the examiner, etc.) The story content usually reveals the subject's attitudes, fantasies, wishes, inner conflicts, and view of the outside world. The story structure typically reflects the subject's feelings, assumptions about the world, and an underlying attitude of optimism or pessimism.


The results of the TAT must be interpreted in the context of the subject's personal history, age, sex, level of education, occupation, racial or ethnic identification, first language, and other characteristics that may be important. "Normal" results are difficult to define in a complex multicultural society like the contemporary United States.



Aronow, Edward, Kim Altman Weiss, and Marvin Reznikoff. A Practical Guide to the Thematic Apperception Test: The TAT in Clinical Practice. Philadelphia, PA: Taylor and Francis, 2001.

Dana, Richard H. "Thematic Apperception Test." In International Encyclopedia of Psychiatry, Psychology, Psychoanalysis, & Neurology , vol. 11, edited by Benjamin B. Wolman. New York: Aesculapius Publishers, Inc., 1977.

Douglas, Claire. Translate This Darkness: The Life of Christiana Morgan. New York: Simon and Schuster,1993.

Geiser, Lon, and Morris I. Stein. Evocative Images: The Thematic Apperception Test and the Art of Projection. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association,1999.

Sweetland, R. C., PhD, and D. J. Keyser, PhD, eds. Tests: A Comprehensive Reference for Assessments in Psychology, Education, and Business. 2nd edition. Kansas City, KS: Test Corporation of America, 1986.


Pica, M., and others. "The Responses of Dissociative Patients on the Thematic Apperception Test." Journal of Clinical Psychology 57 (July 2001): 847-864.

Porcerelli, J. H. and others. "Object Relations and Defense Mechanisms of a Psychopathic Serial Sexual Homicide Perpetrator: A TAT Analysis." Journal of Personality Assessment 77 (August 2001): 87-104.

Schultheiss, O. C., and J. C. Brunstein. "Assessment of Implicit Motives with a Research Version of the TAT: Picture Profiles, Gender Differences, and Relations to Other Personality Measures." Journal of Personality Assessment 77 (August 2001): 71-86.


American Psychological Association. 750 First Street, NE, Washington, DC 20002. (800) 374-2721. Web site: <> .

Rebecca J. Frey, Ph.D.

Also read article about Thematic Apperception Test from Wikipedia

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