What Is the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT)?

thematic apperception test
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The Thematic Apperception test is a type of projective test that involves describing ambiguous scenes. It was developed by psychologist Henry A. Murray and artist and lay psychoanalyst Christina D. Morgan during the 1930s. The test is one of the most widely researched and utilized psychological tests in use today.

How Does the Thematic Apperception Test Work?

The Thematic Apperception Test, or TAT as it is often referred to, that involves showing respondents ambiguous pictures of people and asking them to come up with an explanation for what is happening in the scene. The purpose of the test is to learn more about the respondents' thoughts, concerns, and motives based on the stories they create to explain the vague and often provocative scenes depicted in the pictures.

Subjects are asked to tell a story explaining what is happening in the picture including the events that led up to the scene, what is happening in the scene, what each of the characters is thinking or feeling, and what happens next.

The complete version of the TAT includes 32 picture cards depicting a variety of scenes depicting characters that may include men, women, children, and no human subjects altogether. The scenes explore a number of themes including those related to sexuality, aggression, failure, success, and relationships.

Murray originally recommended using approximately 20 cards and selecting those that depicted characters similar to the subject. Many practitioners today utilize between 8 and 12 cards, often selected because the examiner feels that the scene matches the client's needs and situation.

This format allows the practitioner to utilize their best judgement when selecting scenes in order to determine which might be most likely to elicit useful information from the respondent.

How Is the Thematic Apperception Test Used?

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

  • Helping clients express how they are feeling. 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.
  • Exploring themes and issues that relate to the clients life and 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.
  • Therapists also may use the test to learn more about a client. In this way, the test acts as something of an icebreaker while providing useful information about potential emotional conflicts the client may have.
  •  Assessing clients for some psychological conditions. The test is sometimes used as a tool to assess personality or thought disorders.   
  • The TAT has also been put to use as a forensic tool. 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.
  • The test has also been used as a career assessment tool. The 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 Thematic Apperception Test lacks a standardized and widely used scoring system, so it is difficult to obtain estimates of reliability and validity. Different examiners and clinicians often vary in terms of administration and procedures, so comparing results is difficult. Few practitioners use Murray's complex and difficult scoring system and instead rely on their subjective interpretation and clinical opinion to reach conclusions about the subjects.

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Article Sources
  • Aronow, E., Weiss, K. A., & Rezinkoff, M. (2001). A Practical Guide to the Thematic Apperception Test. Philadelphia: Brunner Routledge.
  • Lilienfeld, S. O., Wood, J. M., & Garb, H. N. (2000). The scientific status of projective techniques. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 1(2), 27-66.
  • Murray, H. A. (1943). Thematic Apperception Test manual. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Sweetland, R. C., & Keyser, D. J. (1986). Tests: A Comprehensive Reference for Assessments in Psychology, Education, and Business. 2nd edition. Kansas City, KS: Test Corporation of America.