Thematic Apperception Test

Thematic Apperception Test Definition

Thematic Apperception TestThe Thematic Apperception Test (TAT) is a psychological assessment device used to measure an individual’s personality, values, or attitudes. The TAT is a projective test that is made up of 30 pictures that show persons in black and white, engaged in ambiguous activities. The test may be adapted for adults and children, males or females by using particular cards within the set. The test taker is asked to make up a story, telling what led up to the scene in the picture, what is happening at the current moment, how the characters are thinking and feeling, and what the outcome will be.

The original purpose of the TAT was to assess Henry Murray’s need theory of personality. Currently, clinicians or researchers use it more generally to assess personality, attitudes, and values.

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Background and History of the Thematic Apperception Test

The TAT is based on the projective hypothesis. Projective tests assume that the way that a test taker perceives and responds to an ambiguous scene reveals inner needs, feelings, conflicts, and desires. The responses are a “projection” of the self and are thought to be indicative of an individual’s psychological functioning. This type of testing was influenced by Freudian thought and theories and became popular in the 1940s.

Projective tests have been used in psychological testing since the 1940s and remain popular in clinical settings. They have been criticized, however, for having poor reliability and validity. While the tests seem to generally reflect a participant’s feelings or personality, they are also potentially influenced by other variables. In particular, there is a lot of random error introduced into these tests. The participant can be influenced by temporary states, such as hunger, sleep deprivation, drugs, anxiety, frustration, or all of these things. The results could be influenced by instructional set, examiner characteristics, the respondent’s perception of the testing situation, or all three elements. Finally, ability factors influence all projective tests, particularly verbal ability. A meaningful interpretation of projective tests must consider all of these factors.

The TAT is the most popular projective test after the Rorshach Inkblot Test, and when scored using the standardized procedure developed by Bellak or used for well-defined constructs such as achievement motivation or affiliation, it is fairly reliable and valid.

The TAT was developed as measure of Henry Murray’s need theory. Murray proposed a set of psychological needs that determined personality. He also defined common environmental forces—presses— which acted on personality and behavior. Murray believed that the projective responses to the ambiguous TAT cards would reveal an individual’s needs and presses. Currently, the TAT is used in clinical as well as research settings to measure personality constructs. In social psychology the TAT might be used to assess individual differences in relating to others within social settings or groups.


  • Bellak, L., & Abrams, D. M. (1996). The T.A.T., C.A.T., and S.A.T in clinical use (6th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.