What Is the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT)?

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Brief Description: A projective test that involves describing ambiguous scenes.

Developed by:  Henry A. Murray and Christina D. Morgan

How Does It 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.

Uses: The TAT is often used as a therapeutic tool to allow clients to express feelings in a non-direct way.

Therapists also may use the test to learn more about a client, to explore various themes or issues during the course of therapy, or as an assessment tool.

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 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: 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.


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.