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What is the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT)?

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  • 0:03 Thematic Apperception Tests
  • 1:40 Who Created the TAT and Why?
  • 2:06 How Has the TAT Evolved?
  • 3:35 How Is the TAT…
  • 4:56 Criticisms of the TAT
  • 6:11 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Terry Haru

Terry has worked in mental health and has taught college social science courses. He has a doctorate in sociology and a master’s degree in counseling.

In this lesson, you'll learn about the Thematic Apperception Test: what it is, its purpose, how it has evolved, how it is administered and scored, and its major criticisms as a personality assessment tool.

Thematic Apperception Tests

You're probably familiar with personality tests in which you answer specific questions about whether you prefer to read a book, go hiking, travel, etc. Maybe you've also taken a test asking you to rate yourself along a continuum of happy to sad, or to determine whether a particular statement about you is true or false. These tests calculate your answers and give you a numerical score telling you where you fit among the normed scores of others who have taken the same test. For example, did you score higher or lower than the norm? Or maybe your score tells you that you fit into some personality type, such as easy going versus go getter, thinker or artist, introvert versus extrovert, and so forth.

Example of a TAT picture

Now, let's suppose instead you're shown a series of black and white pictures similar to this one. The person showing you the picture asks you to create a story by answering four questions about each picture:

1. What's happening now?

2. What led up to it?

3. What are the characters in the story thinking and feeling?

4. How will the story end?

If you did this,what would your story look like? This is what taking the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT) looks like. Instead of answering specific questions or rating yourself on some scale, you tell an open-ended story that makes sense to you.

Your stories would then be analyzed in terms of any themes, conflicts, motivations, interests, and so forth that appear in them. Psychologists call this a projective personality test because you would be unconsciously projecting important things about yourself in the stories you create.

Who Created the TAT and Why?

The Thematic Apperception Test was created in the 1930s by Henry A. Murray and Christiana D. Morgan while they were working with the Harvard University Psychological Clinic. They created the TAT as a method to reveal the often less-than-obvious subconscious dynamics of a person's personality. Murray and Morgan focused especially on motives related to the needs for achievement, power, intimacy, and problem solving.

How Has the TAT Evolved?

After World War II, psychologists expanded the use of the TAT to help understand the disordered thinking of patients previously diagnosed with a mental health condition, which was not used to aid in the diagnostic process itself, and to assist in identifying the best type of therapy for a particular patient personality. With the growth of the human potential movement of the 1970s, psychologists used the TAT to help their clients better understand themselves for optimal personal growth.

In recent decades, psychologists further expanded the use of the TAT to help in mate selection, choosing careers (especially those that involve high stress, such as police work, the military, and diplomatic service) and to study how people think and feel about a variety of issues such as labor problems, authority, and personal fantasies.

Psychologists also made changes related to the design and administration of the TAT. For example, the number of cards used during a session now varies. Some of the original pictures have been modified, others deleted, and still others added. Differences between examiner and subject are now taken into consideration, because examiner interpretation of subject responses can be problematic if their backgrounds are too dissimilar.

The TAT is the second-most popular projective test used by psychologists. As with other projective tests, the TAT should be used as part of a battery of tests, rather than a stand-alone assessment tool.

How Is the TAT Administered and Scored?

Originally, the TAT consisted of 31 pictures, with the examiner selecting about 10 of them per session that appeared most appropriate for a particular person. While the number of pictures used and the nature of the pictures has changed over the years, examiners continue to ask the same four questions. This process was originally completed in two sessions over two days, each lasting about an hour. Today one session is more likely.

What the examiner analyzes has also remained the same:

  • First, they analyze the content of the stories, which can reveal attitudes, inner conflicts, wishes, fantasies, expectations of relationships with others, views of the world, and more.

  • Second, they analyze the emotional tone of the stories, whether they exhibit sadness, happiness, anxiety, disappointment, anger, etc.

  • Third, the behavior of the subject while telling the stories is analyzed, including poor eye contact with the examiner, fidgetiness, hesitancy, changes in voice inflection, blushing, and pauses.

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