The Thematic Apperception Test: Tool for Measuring Implicit Motives


Professions in the field of psychology are constantly seeking ways to best assess clients so as to facilitate effective treatment and counseling. Among the instruments used for psychological testing are projective tests. These tests are derived from Sigmund Freud’s conception of projection which is defined as “a psychological mechanism by which an individual “projects” inner feelings onto the external world, then imagines these feelings are being expressed by the outside world toward oneself” (Bellak & Abrams, 1997, p.1). One of the popular projective tests is The Thematic Apperception Test which has been in use for over half a century. Sheldon, et al. (2007, p.276) refers to TAT as the “most important old school measure of implicit motives”. This test is credited with helping psychology professions to identify underlying issues with a client by use of picture cards. However, the TAT has been heavily criticized because of its limited reliability and validity. This has led to questions as to the future of the TAT as an assessment tool. This paper will argue that the TAT is a great tool in clinical psychology and its relevance today is as huge as in its earlier years, criticisms notwithstanding. To reinforce this claim, this paper shall set out to highlight the uses of the TAT and its significant strengths.

Brief History of the TAT

The Thematic Apperception Test (TAT) is among a class of projective tests which are used in psychological testing. Lundy (1985) defines the TAT as “a semi-structured projective technique requiring an individual to make up stories in response to pictures of intentionally varied ambiguity”. The TAT test was introduce in 1932 by Henry Murray and his associates using a set of 8 pictures that were though to serve as a means for discovering the hidden fantasies of patients. The TAT procedure is based on the assumption that a patient projects onto their narration their unique needs, motives and hidden fantasies. TAT as a projective test was first published by Christiana Morgan and Henry Murray in 1935. Morgan (1995) advances that “when a person attempts to interpret a complex situation he is apt to tell as much about himself as he is about the phenomenon which attention is focused”. The test was designed to elicit unconscious stimuli through the use of cards therefore revealing the projected personality of the subject. Murray came up with a system based on sound theory for interpreting the narrations that were made from pictured scenes.

The TAT consists of a total of 31 black and white pictured cards, most containing people in varied situations. The test administrator chooses the number of cards to present during the test and the subjects are asked to give a narration concerning each of the pictures. The subject is required to make the story rich in details. Lilienfield et al. (2001) state that while the number of cards used is unique to the clinician, typically, only 20 cards are used and the order in which they are presented is at the discretion of the clinician. The subject is asked to give a narration concerning what they think is happening in each picture. This narration includes the thoughts and emotions of the pictured character and a context of the situation. An outcome to the story is also required.

Since its inception, there have been numerous adaptations of the TAT cards so as to cater for varying ethnic groups and cultures. These adaptations are as a result of the premise that individuals will be at ease to express their inner feelings if they are asked to create stories to pictures that show images that they can relate with. Other assessments instruments that are modeled after the TAT include Apperception Test for children and the Tell Me A Story.

Psychometric Qualities of the Test

A defining characteristic of projective tests is that there is no right or wrong answers; instead, the test evaluates the individual’s response to an ambiguous situation with little structure. This applies to the TAT and as such, the test does not take on any standardized format. Instead, the test subject is allowed to tell the story in the manner that is most natural to his and the examiner has to rely on their intuition to interpret the information.

Inter-rater reliability of TAT is high but only when the interpretive criteria used are clearly articulated and the interpreters possess a high level of competency as a result of good training. Lundy (1985) asserts that in these ideal conditions, agreement between ratters is in excess of 80% which is considered adequate. Test-retest reliability is the “ability of a test to measure a trait that is supposed to be stable over time” (Hess et al., 2001). As a rule, tests that require open ended response (such as the TAT) must be scored subjectively which brings about the issue of consistency in the results or independent raters. Lundy (1985) asserts that the two vital considerations when looking at test-retest reliability are: whether the focus is on “similarity of story content or similarity of the clinician’s judgment”. Nevertheless, most professionals hold that the reliability of the story content is secondary to the consistency of the interpretive meaning by the clinician. Clearly designating the interpretive criteria results in an increase in the reliability of TAT.

The scoring system used in the TAT is very important and studies have suggested that the traditional scheme used by Murray’s to make interpretations is overly simplistic. Therefore, this scheme is not of much use since it is unable to differentiate subtle feelings. Using more inclusive interpretative schemes, TAT scores correlate with independent measures of behavior in meaningful ways (Cramer, 1996). The story length can affect the results that are obtained from the TAT. The longer the narration given by the subject, the more the information that can be gathered and as such, the narrative can be used as a sample of behavior.

A confusing aspect of TAT is that there is no standardized manner of administering the test. The clinician therefore interprets the story from the subject in an intuitive manner as opposed to following well-tested scoring procedure. Due to this, the validity of TAT as a test has been questioned throughout the existence of the test. However, Tomkins (1947), an advocate of the TAT declared that it was inappropriate to question the validity of the TAT test; rather, the question was whether the inferences made based on the test were true.

Uses of the test

One of the uses of TAT is in determining the levels of aggression in a person. The TAT can be used to differentiate between aggressive and non-aggressive people. Aggression is defined as the intention to hurt or dominate others and aggressive behavior does not necessarily translated to the use of physical force. Teglasi (2001) states that historically, TAT has been used as a projective instrument for looking at obvious and subtle levels of aggression. This is because TAT can see beyond the things that a person is willing or able to reveal hence act as a tool for assessing aggression. The TAT Aggressive Content Scale was developed by Stone and its purpose is to “objectively score hostile-aggressive responses on the TAT” (Stone, 1956). The TAT test works by associating behavioral aggression with fantasy aggression is. Even so, it should be noted that the value of the TAT in assessing aggression is dependent on the clear presence or absence of violent fantasy.

Kroon (1999) asserts that when using traditional instruments such as questionnaires and checklists to assess a child’s psychological status, the tools have inherent limitations since adults generally focus on observable behavior. Reports on a child’s emotional functioning are therefore inferential and adults overlook the intensity of the child’s subjective experience (Cantwell, 1990). The child may also hide certain issues or try to report their idealized versions in the self-report questionnaire or interview. Compounding this with the child’s developmental and cognitive issues such as language skills and self-understanding, the validity of the reports obtained is highly impeded. When used on children, the TAT is based on the assumption that the responses to the picture cards will help to reveal the child’s inner world. By so doing, the responses will provide insights into the child’s emotional functioning. The TAT as a child assessment instrument is highly applicable since it lets the child to “interpret their world in terms of their own experience” (Kroon, 1999).

A Critique of the Test

A major strength of TAT is its reliance on pictures rather than language as test stimuli. TAT therefore presents a culturally unbiased test instrument that can be utilized universally. Watkins et al. (1995) asserts that there are over 4000 different languages spoken all over the world and this proves to be a major setback for cross-cultural psychologists trying to design an effective testing instrument which would have to be translated into the native language of each culture. Language translation of a test requires lengthy considerations in order to preserve the meanings of the words and even then, it is impossible to factor in all the variations of meanings that exist across cultures. The difficulty in translations is articulated by McCrae and Costa (1997, p.510) who assert that “finding the exact equivalent for a single word in another language is often impossible”. TAT eliminates this deterrent since it uses pictures cards which are universally understandable. The meaning of the picture cards will be preserved across cultures therefore making TAT an ideal tool in cross cultural psychology.

The TAT projective test can be used by a counselor to tailor therapy approaches more effectively to the individual needs of the client. All this can be down without the professional having to learn a whole new therapy so as to be appropriate to the client’s cultural backgrounds. This is because the TAT is especially accurate in discovering aspects of personality and especially the individual’s need to achieve and their view of other people (Lilienfield et al., 2001). A study by Cantwell (1990) proved that the motivational themes seen in TAT stories are mirrored in the life of the individual who is narrating. As such, the TAT is a mirror into the behavior of the person.

Being a projective test, the TAT does not have any correct answers since it is unstructured and more open ended. While critics view this as a weakness, it is strength of TAT since the subject is more at ease to express inner feelings and reveal his or her basic personality orientation. Cramer (1996) asserts that “the criterion for a good interpretation is whether it will provide new meaningful, clarify current struggles, or demonstrate new relationships”. This are all attributes that the TAT fulfills since it leads in the subliminal fantasies of the test subject being revealed.

An inherent problem that arises in the lack of structure and ambiguity presented by the TAT is that subjects can take the lack of structure to express their creativity. When the subject uses the story telling session as a means to be creative, the validity of the TAT is greatly diminished. This is because the value of the TAT lies in the ability to reveal issues or feelings that the person taking the test might be unwilling to reveal. When the subject uses the TAT to express their creativity, they cannot reveal any material of value since they are not relying on their unconscious.

A major weakness of TAT is its subjective nature. For example, when assessing aggression, the value of the TAT in assessing aggression is dependent on the clear presence or absence of violent fantasy. However, violent subjects may produce violent fantasies on a consistent basis. The results of the TAT will greatly depend on the conditions under which the test is being taken. Also, the person taking the TAT understands that it is an examination and what they say will later on be analyzed and as such, the person may might give data that is contradictory to the real self-concept or exhibit inhibition during storytelling. A system which fails to take into consideration environmental factors will also reduce the effectiveness of the TAT.

The TAT scoring system may be simplistic which will result in reduced accuracy. Lilienfeld et al. (2001) point out that a scoring system that has arbitrary weight assignments on varied content is fundamentally flawed. Cramer (1996) observes that several TAT scoring systems have been unable to differentiate normal individuals from those who suffer from some psychological disorders. This is a major pitfall of TAT since it means that the tests cannot be used to diagnose psychological disorders.

My Future Usage of the TAT

I am certain that the TAT will be appropriate to me no matter what area of clinical psychology I chose to work in. The ability of TAT to produce usable data that is hard to extract from self-report measures is one that I would like to exploit in my practice so as to better help my patients. The TAT would also be useful to me in my studies of what motivates the individual.

A key usefulness of TAT is that it will allow me to overcome the barrier to expression that may arise due to the cultural background of my client. Success in psychotherapy is linked to the willingness of the client to express emotions. Indeed, “traditional psychotherapy often requires introspection, high verbal functioning, tolerance for ambiguity and emotional expressiveness on the part of clients” (Gray, 1999; Stumphauzer & Davis 1983, p.253). While this may come easy for people from western cultures who are socialized to express themselves eloquently, it may not be the case in some other culture. A study by Gray (1999) demonstrates that traditional Japanese are socialized to refrain from expressing emotions directly and sharing personal details to people outside of the family.

A major challenge that I would face in my usage of the TAT is interpretation of the TAT. Lilienfeld et al. (2001) warns that professionals who are inclined to interpret the TAT intuitively can end up over diagnosing psychological disturbance in the patient. This leads to a reduction the effectiveness of the TAT. To overcome this, I would have to make use of clearly designated interpretive criteria and ensure that I was well trained to interpret the findings from the TAT.

On coming up with the interpretations from the stories, I would use the results s to find new meanings that the client may not even be aware of. I would also use the results to provide insight into the client’s emotional functioning. From these insights, I could come up with strategies to help the client lead a psychologically healthy life.


The value of projected story telling is especially significant when working with children and adolescents. Even so, projective techniques have pitfalls due to the validity and reliability issues raised. While the TAT enjoyed initial enthusiasm following its invention, the validity and reliability of TAT has been seriously questioned over the years. Despite these criticisms, TAT as a projective technique continues to be administered by professionals today therefore highlighting the significance that practitioners place on this tool. Results from a survey by Watkins et al. (1995) on clinical psychologists showed that the Thematic Apperception Test is still top in the list of popular personality tests used in the field.

Many studies point out that the TAT test should not be used as a “stand-alone” instrument for psychodiagnostic purposes (Hutcheon, 2010; Lilienfeld, Wood & Garb, 2001; Cramer, 1996). Rather, the TAT should be used in conjunction with other objective psychological tests. This is because the TAT cannot be used to effectively identify psychological disorders and also, its reliability is not guaranteed. By using the TAT with objective psychological tests, the weaknesses of the TAT can be overcome therefore enabling the professional to gain maximum input form this test.


This paper set out to showcase the TAT as a novel tool for personality assessment by clinical psychologists. To this end, the paper has demonstrated that TAT is one of the most promising tests available in the field of psychological testing. The TAT can help overcome cultural and language barriers that impede the use of other assessment tools. The technique is also effective when dealing with children, adolescents and people from cultures where emotional expressiveness is discouraged. This paper has noted that the reliability and validity of the TAT is highly dependent on whether the examiner is well trained and experienced. A major weakness of the TAT is that it is open to manipulation by the subject who is aware that they are being evaluated. A major limitation of the TAT is that it is not effective in identification of psychiatric disorders. Even so, the TAT is valid in specific areas of personality and motivation and can therefore continue to play a major role in personality assessment.

From this paper, it is clear that the TAT has the potential to greatly aid in personality assessment. However, this positive attributes can only be reaped if it is properly administered and interpreted, in which case the tests can provide clear pictures of the mind of the subject. This will help health professionals’ tp better assist a client. With this considerations, it can be stated that the future of the TAT is assured despite this psychological assessment instrument having been heavily criticized.


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