What is the thematic apperception test (TAT)?

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The Thematic Apperception Test is one of the most popular personality assessment instruments. It consists of pictures of ambiguous social situations; the subject makes up a story about each picture. These stories are interpreted by a trained clinician to reveal important aspects of the subject’s personality.
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The kind of psychological testing concerned with the affective, or nonintellectual, aspects of behavior is called personality assessment. Personality tests refer to measures of such characteristics as emotional states, motivation, attitudes, interests, and interpersonal relations. There are two general types of personality assessment instruments. Objective assessment instruments require a specific response such as “true” or “false,” while projective techniques require that the client respond to a relatively unstructured task that permits a variety of possible responses. Methods for eliciting and interpreting stories told about pictured scenes are one type of projective technique. The most widely used set of pictures is the one introduced in 1935 by Henry A. Murray of the Harvard Psychological Clinic. This set is titled the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT).

Apperception is more than just the recognition or perception of an object based on sensory experience. It is also the addition of meaning to what is perceived. Thus, telling stories about pictured scenes is an apperceptive task requiring the interpretation of what is pictured to discern a character’s motives, intentions, and expectations. The TAT shows the actual dynamics of interpersonal relationships. It reveals the testing subject’s relationship to peers of both sexes, male and female authority figures, and specific family relationships, such as the relationship between a mother and her son.

The TAT set comprises thirty pictures and one blank card. These cards are organized into four parallel sets of twenty pictures according to the age and gender of the test subject. Thus, these cards are numbered from 1 to 20 and are designated suitable for boys (B), girls (G), males over fourteen (M), females over fourteen (F), or combinations of those groups (MF, BG, BM, GF). Cards with no letters following their numbers are suitable for all subjects. The cards are achromatic and lack racial diversity. However, adaptations of these cards for specialized populations do not result in richer, more productive stories than does the traditional TAT. The primary advantage of the TAT set is that the pictures portray situations conveying unfinished business and are ambiguous, thus allowing many possible interpretations.

Administration and Interpretation

Generally, the clinician selects eight to twelve of the cards to administer to the client. Leopold Bellak, the author of the most widely used book on the TAT, has suggested certain cards for standard use. For example, Card 1 is recommended for all subjects. It depicts a boy seated at table looking down at a violin resting on the table. The stimulus requires an explanation for the boy’s facial expression in relation to the violin. Instructions are given to the client to make up a story for each picture shown. They are told to tell what has happened before the event in the picture, to describe what is happening at the moment, what the characters are thinking and feeling, and what the outcome is. Exact wording of the instructions can vary depending on the age and intellectual level of the subject. Approximately five minutes for storytelling per picture is typical. In the standard procedure, the examiner will write the stories down as the test is given individually. After all the stories are given, the examiner may inquire about any specific dates, places, or names of people. It is also feasible to use self-administration with written instructions and group administration in which the pictures are projected onto a screen and each person writes down a story.

As indicated in the name “Thematic Apperception Test,” the clinician examines themes that emerge across all the stories generated by the client. These themes may involve cognition (that is, logic or realism), emotion (and how to cope with emotion), and motivation (what motivates individuals to act and how they pursue goals). A common theme for Card 1 depicting the boy and violin is that of achievement motivation. Various methods of interpreting the TAT have been developed, and some are fairly structured. Generally, clinicians prefer to use the TAT as a flexible tool for eliciting information that they would interpret based on their professional training and experience.


Anastasi, Anne, and Susan Urbina. Psychological Testing. 7th ed. Upper Saddle River: Prentice, 1997. Print.

Bellak, Leopold. The TAT, CAT, and SAT in Clinical Use. 6th ed. Boston: Allyn, 1997. Print.

Coaley, Keith. An Introduction to Psychological Assessment and Psychometrics. London: Sage, 2010. Print.

Cramer, Phebe. Storytelling, Narrative, and the Thematic Apperception Test. New York: Guilford, 2004. Print.

Groth-Marnat, Gary. Handbook of Psychological Assessment. 5th ed. Hoboken: Wiley, 2009. Print.

Teglasi, Hedwig. Essentials of TAT and Other Storytelling Techniques Assessment. 2nd ed. Hoboken: Wiley, 2010. Print.

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