Psychological Testing: Thematic Apperception Test

Brindusa Vanta, MD, DHMHS
Medical editor

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The Thematic Apperception Test, or TAT, is a projective psychological test. Historically, it's been among the most widely researched, taught, and used of such tests. It's used in clinical practice to uncover aspects of personality, especially regarding subjects' feelings and attitudes towards others, themselves, and potential life outcomes, whether positive or negative. 

Understanding the TAT


The Thematic Apperception Test (TAT) is a projective psychological assessment tool designed to uncover the underlying dynamics of an individual's personality. By presenting subjects with a series of provocative yet ambiguous pictures, it taps into the unconscious mind, uncovering underlying dynamics of personality, including aspects like motivations, emotions, and interpersonal relationships. This test is historically significant, being one of the most researched, taught, and utilized projective tests in the field of psychology. Its proponents argue that the TAT can provide deep insights into a person's internal conflicts, desires, and the way they perceive and interact with the world around them.


The TAT is popularly known as the picture interpretation technique because it uses a standard series of provocative yet ambiguous pictures the subject is asked to tell a story about. The subject is 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 at the moment
  • What the characters are feeling and thinking
  • What the outcome of the story was

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If these elements are omitted, particularly for children or individuals of low cognitive abilities, the evaluator may ask the subject about them directly.

The standard form of the TAT includes 31 picture cards. Some of the cards show male figures, some female, some both male and female figures, some of ambiguous gender, some adults, some children, and some show no human figures at all. One card is completely blank. Although the cards were originally designed to be matched to the subject in terms of age and gender, any card may be used with any subject. Most practitioners choose a set of approximately 10 cards, using cards they either feel are generally useful or believe will encourage the subject's expression of emotional conflicts relevant to their specific history and situation.[1]

Scoring Systems

The TAT is a projective test in that its assessment of the subject is based on what they project onto the ambiguous images. Therefore, to complete the assessment, each narrative created by a subject must be carefully recorded and analyzed to uncover underlying needs, attitudes, and patterns of reaction. Although most clinical practitioners don't use formal scoring systems, several formal scoring systems have been developed for analyzing TAT stories systematically and consistently. Two common methods currently used in research are the following:

  • Defense Mechanisms Manual (DMM) [2]. This assesses three defense mechanisms: denial (least mature), projection (intermediate), and identification (most mature). A person's thoughts/feelings are projected in the stories involved.
  • Social Cognition and Object Relations (SCOR) scale [3]. This assesses four different dimensions of object relations: Complexity of Representations of People, Affect-Tone of Relationship Paradigms, Capacity for Emotional Investment in Relationships and Moral Standards, and Understanding of Social Causality.

Administration of the Test

Administering the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT) involves a structured yet flexible process designed to elicit rich, narrative responses from the individual being assessed. The primary goal is to explore the subject's unconscious mind through the stories they construct in response to a series of ambiguous images. Here's a step-by-step guide on how to administer the TAT effectively:

  1. Preparation: The administrator selects a set of TAT cards before the session. The standard TAT consists of 31 picture cards featuring a variety of scenes and characters that are deliberately ambiguous and provocative. These cards include images of male and female figures, both adults and children, some of ambiguous gender, and even one blank card. The selection of cards can be tailored to the subject's age, their gender, and the specific issues or areas the administrator wishes to explore.
  2. Introduction: The subject is introduced to the task in a manner that's intended to make them feel comfortable and encouraged to express their imagination freely. They're informed that they'll be shown a series of pictures and asked to tell a story about each one.
  3. Storytelling Directive: For each card presented, the subject is asked to craft a story that's as detailed and dramatic as they can make it. The directive includes several key components:

  • Characters: Who are the people or figures in the image? What are their characteristics and roles?
  • Emotions: What are the characters feeling and thinking? How do these emotions influence their actions within the story?
  • Motivations: What desires, needs, or conflicts drive the characters' actions? How do these motivations interact within the narrative?
  • Resolutions: How does the story conclude? What are the outcomes for the characters involved, and what does this imply about their future?

  1. Curated Set of TAT Cards: The choice of TAT cards is a critical aspect of the test administration. Each card has been selected for its potential to evoke responses that reveal the subject's internal world and psychological functioning. The thematic relevance of the cards is broad, enabling the exploration of various aspects of personality, including interpersonal relationships, conflicts, and coping mechanisms.
  2. Recording Responses: The administrator carefully records the subject's responses, noting not only the content of the stories but also any emotional reactions or hesitations. These observations can provide additional insights into the subject's psychological state.
  3. Follow-Up Questions: In cases where the narrative is sparse or the subject omits significant elements of the storytelling directive, the administrator may ask follow-up questions to encourage further elaboration. These questions should be open-ended and non-directive to avoid leading the subject's responses.

By following these steps, the administrator can facilitate a session that not only adheres to the procedural integrity of the TAT but also respects the unique perspectives and experiences of the individual. The stories generated through this process offer a rich source of data for understanding the subject's underlying psychological dynamics, emotional states, and unresolved conflicts.

As Dr. Brindusa Vanta, MD, says: "By assuming that children and teenagers identify themselves with the characters in their TAT stories, therapists can analyze the data to gain insights into how young individuals are likely to feel, think, and behave." 


The TAT was developed by the American psychologists Henry A. Murray and Christiana D. Morgan at Harvard during the 1930s to explore the underlying dynamics of personality, such as internal conflicts, dominant drives, interests, and motives. According to Melville scholar Howard P Vincent, the TAT “came into being when Dr. Henry A. Murray, psychologist and Melvillist, adapted the implicit lesson of Melville's [Moby Dick] 'Doubloon' chapter to a new and larger creative, therapeutic purpose.”

After World War II, the TAT was adopted more broadly by psychoanalysts and clinicians to evaluate emotionally disturbed clients.

Later, in the 1970s, the Human Potential Movement encouraged psychologists to use the TAT to help their clients understand themselves better and stimulate personal growth.


Decreasing support for the Freudian principle of repression, which the test is based on, has caused the TAT to be criticized as false or outdated by some professional psychologists. Their criticisms are that the TAT is unscientific because it can't be proven to be valid (actually measuring what it claims to measure) or reliable (giving consistent results over time due to the challenge of standardizing interpretations of the narratives provided by subjects).

Some critics of the TAT cards have observed that the characters and environments are dated, even "old-fashioned," creating a "cultural or psycho-social distance" between the patients and the stimuli that makes identifying with them less likely. Also, in researching the responses of subjects given photographs versus the TAT, researchers found that the TAT cards evoked more "deviant" stories (i.e., more negative) than photographs, leading researchers to conclude that the difference was due to the differences in the characteristics of the images used as stimuli [4].

Contemporary Applications of TAT

Despite criticisms, the TAT remains widely used as a tool for research into areas of psychology such as dreams, fantasies, mate selection, and what motivates people to choose their occupations. Sometimes, it's used in a psychiatric or psychological context to assess personality disorders or thought disorders, in forensic examinations to evaluate crime suspects, or to screen candidates for high-stress occupations. It's also commonly used in routine psychological evaluations, typically without a formal scoring system, as a way to explore emotional conflicts and object relations.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Who can administer the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT)?

The TAT should be administered by a qualified psychologist or trained mental health professional familiar with projective testing techniques and the principles of psychological assessment. This ensures the test is conducted ethically and the results are interpreted accurately.

What is the main purpose of the TAT?

The primary purpose of the TAT is to uncover the underlying dynamics of an individual's personality, focusing on subjects' feelings and attitudes towards others, themselves, and potential life outcomes. It's used to explore aspects of personality that aren't easily accessible through more direct testing methods. 

How are the results of the TAT scored?

Unlike more quantitative tests, the TAT doesn't have a standardized scoring system that applies universally. However, several formal scoring systems have been developed for research purposes, such as the Defense Mechanisms Manual (DMM) and the Social Cognition and Object Relations (SCOR) scale. In clinical practice, the interpretation often relies on qualitative analysis of the narratives' content, emotional themes, and symbolic meanings.

Can the TAT be used with children?

Yes, the TAT can be adapted for use with children. Special sets of cards designed to be more relatable for younger subjects are used, and the storytelling prompts may be adjusted to suit their developmental level. The test can provide insights into a child's emotional world, family relationships, and coping mechanisms.

How long does it take to administer the TAT?

The administration time can vary depending on the number of cards used and the depth of the subject's responses. Typically, a session can last from 45 minutes to over an hour. The administrator may choose a subset of cards (usually around 10) to manage time effectively while still gaining meaningful insights.

How is the TAT interpreted?

Interpretation of the TAT requires a deep understanding of psychological theory, thematic analysis, and symbolic meanings. The narratives are examined for recurring themes, patterns of thought, emotional expressions, and the resolution of conflicts. This analysis can reveal aspects of the subject's personality, emotional concerns, and potential areas for therapeutic intervention.

Is the TAT still relevant today?

Despite criticisms and the development of new psychological tests, the TAT remains a valuable tool in certain contexts, such as psychotherapy, psychological research, and complex clinical assessments where understanding deep psychological processes is crucial.

What are the limitations of the TAT?

The main limitations include its subjective nature, the potential for interpretation bias, and the lack of a standardized scoring system for clinical use. Moreover, cultural and social factors can influence the stories told, which necessitates careful consideration of the subject's background when interpreting the results.

As Dr. Brindusa Vanta, MD, says: "The Thematic Apperception Test (TAT) helps reveal hidden facets of personality. Yet, beyond its clinical use, TAT stories offer a unique perspective into the depths of  human imagination and creativity."

See also


  1. ^ Cramer, P. (2004). Storytelling, narrative, and the Thematic Apperception Test. New York: Guilford Press..
  2. ^ Cramer, P (1991). The Development of Defense Mechanisms: Theory, Research, and Assessment. New York: Springer-Verlag.
  3. ^ Westen, Drew. Clinical Assessment of Object Relations Using the TAT. Journal of Personality Assessment, Volume 56, Issue 1 February 1991 , pages 56 - 74.
  4. Gruber, N., & Kreuzpointner, L. (2013). Measuring the reliability of picture story exercises like the TAT. PloS one, 8(11), e79450.
  5. ^ Narron, M. C. (2005). Updating the TAT: A Photographic Revision of the Thematic Apperception Test, Dissertations Abstract International, DAI-B 66/01, p. 568, Jul 2005
  6. ^ Saxon, Wolfgang (30 March 2000). "Leopold Bellak, 83; Expert on Psychological Tests". The New York Times. Retrieved 25 May 2010.
  7. ^ Cramer, 2004
  8. ^ Esteemsters.22_.5B1.01.5D

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