Why the Thematic Apperception Test Is Used in Therapy

thematic apperception test
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The Thematic Apperception Test, or TAT, is a type of projective test that involves describing ambiguous scenes to learn more about a person's emotions, motivations, and personality. Popularly known as the "picture interpretation technique," it was developed by American psychologists Henry A. Murray and Christina D. Morgan at Harvard University in the 1930s. The TAT is one of the most widely researched and clinically used personality tests.

How the Thematic Apperception Test Works

The TAT involves showing people a series of picture cards depicting a variety of ambiguous characters (that may include men, women, and/or children), scenes, and situations.

They are then asked to tell as dramatic a story as they can for each picture presented, including:

  • What has led up to the event shown
  • What is happening in the scene
  • The thoughts and feelings of characters
  • The outcome of the story

The TAT is different from the Rorschach Inkblot Test in that the Rorschach uses inkblot images vs. being a detailed scene. The Rorschach also asks the person to only explain the image, not to give an entire story.

The complete version of the TAT includes 31 cards. Murray originally recommended using approximately 20 cards and selecting those that depicted characters similar to the subject.

When used today, many practitioners only utilize between 5 and 12 cards, often selected because the examiner feels that the scene matches the client's needs and situation. Practitioners use their best judgment when selecting scenes to determine which might be most likely to elicit useful information.

Why the Thematic Apperception Test Is Used

The TAT can be utilized by therapists in a number of different ways. Some of these include:

  • To learn more about a person. In this way, the test acts as something of an icebreaker while providing useful information about potential emotional conflicts the client may have.
  • To help people express their feelings. The TAT is often used as a therapeutic tool to allow clients to express feelings in a non-direct way. A client may not yet be able to express a certain feeling directly, but they might be able to identify the emotion when viewed from an outside perspective.
  • To explore themes related to the person's life experiences. Clients dealing with problems such as job loss, divorce, or health issues might interpret the ambiguous scenes and relating to their unique circumstances, allowing deeper exploration over the course of therapy.
  • To assess someone for psychological conditions. The test is sometimes used as a tool to assess personality or thought disorders.   
  • To evaluate crime suspects. Clinicians may administer the test to criminals to assess the risk of recidivism or to determine if a person matches the profile of a crime suspect.
  • To screen job candidates. This is sometimes used to determine if people are suited to particular roles, especially positions that require coping with stress and evaluating vague situations such as military leadership and law enforcement positions.

Criticisms of the Thematic Apperception Test

The TAT is often criticized for not being standardized, meaning there are no rules of administration or formal scoring system. Clinicians often vary in how they administer the test. Additionally, few practitioners use Murray's complex scoring system and instead rely on their subjective interpretation and clinical opinion.

For example, even if clinicians use the same scoring system, they may use different cards or a different number of cards. This makes it incredibly difficult to obtain estimates of reliability and validity, and almost impossible to compare results.

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Morgan CD, Murray HA. A Method for Investigating Fantasies: The Thematic Apperception Test. Arch NeurPsych. 1935;34(2):289-306. doi:10.1001/archneurpsyc.1935.02250200049005

  2. Vane JR. The thematic apperception test: A review. Clin Psychol Rev. 1981;1(3):319-336. doi:10.1016/0272-7358(81)90009-X

  3. Lilienfeld SO, Wood JM, Garb HN. The Scientific Status of Projective Techniques. Psychol Sci Public Interest. 2000;1(2):27-66. doi:10.1111/1529-1006.002

  4. Keiser RE, Prather EN. What is the TAT? A review of ten years of research. J Pers Assess. 1990;55(3-4):800-803. doi:10.1080/00223891.1990.9674114

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is the author of the "Everything Psychology Book (2nd Edition)" and has written thousands of articles on diverse psychology topics. Kendra holds a Master of Science degree in education from Boise State University with a primary research interest in educational psychology and a Bachelor of Science in psychology from Idaho State University with additional coursework in substance use and case management.