Thematic Apperception Test Essay

Thematic Apperception Test Essay.

The Thematic Apperception Test was developed by Henry A. Murray and C. D. Morgan in 1935. Johnson (1994) argues that “The Thematic Apperception Test remains one of the most popular psychological assessment devices” (p. 314) but others lament that the test is not being used very frequently nowadays (Cramer, 1999). In the initial stages of its creation it was developed as a normal personality test. The test was originally designed as a way of identifying an individual’s needs and personality traits.

According to Gough (1948), based on the nature of the Thematic Apperception Test, it is in truth and in fact a test of imagination.

He points to several researchers, including the creators, who characterized the test as such. The first known instance of its use is at the Harvard Psychological Clinic (Johnson, 1994). This test is very similar to the Rorschach inkblot test which was developed at around the same time by Hermann Rorschach, a Swiss psychiatrist.

In the Thematic Apperception Test the subjects are shown a sequence of pictures, randomly organized by the psychiatrist.

Based on what they see in the pictures the subjects are required to make up a detailed story which they tell to the psychiatrist. Subjects administered the test are able to demonstrate their “cognitive abilities such as sequencing of ideas, intact language function, and verbal expression” (Johnson, 1994) based on the requirement for them to tell a story based on visual stimulus. The TAT examines a number of underlying psychological motivators. The three motives that are most often investigated are the needs for achievement, affiliation and power (Lundy, 1988, p. 311).

It is anticipated that the test serves as a useful way for the clinician to get a good understanding of the subject’s psych in a limited time (Gough, 1948). Based on existing patterns, recurring images or themes existent in the narratives recounted by subjects, the clinicians can easily diagnose underlying needs, psychological issues and fears that could account for a client’s existing mental and psychological state. According to Gough (1948), “procedures such as the TAT are able to shorten the time spent on these preliminaries” (p. 91). Johnson (1994) supports this point by emphasizing that the TAT figures as an essential element of several psychological assessments (Johnson, 1994).

Among the several areas in which the Thematic Apperception Test has been used Deabler (1947) identifies several including for the purposes of personnel selection, for diagnosis of psychiatric conditions, in mental hospitals, reformatories, prisons, the armed services, child guidance centers and medical installation centers (p. 246).

The test is intended to be used by trained clinicians with their clients in the privacy of their consultation rooms, for any of the purposes previously identified. The nature of the test is of such that it is conducted at an individual level, where the clinician works with a single client. At least in the very early stages of its use the TAT was used soled among individual clients (Deabler, 1947).

More modern adaptations of the test have seen it evolve to where clinicians are experimenting with group-forms of assessment. Thus far there is, however, not much consensus as to which approach is, if at all, superior or would render better results. It appears however, according to research conducted by Lindzey and Silverman (1959) that the individual form of the test is still the preferred option by a majority of clinicians even though the group form has been gaining some popularity.

The Thematic Apperception Test, as mentioned before, consists of a series of cards with various images in black and white. In the original form of the test created by Murray and Morgan the test was made up of 20 cards in total which were further subdivided into groups – M, W, B, G and a fifth category. The group labeled B was to be administered to boys below while that labeled M was for males over 14 years.

The group labeled G was to be administered to girls under 14 and that labeled W for females over 14 years. The final group which did not have a letter suffix attached consisted of cards which could be administered to both sexes. In later adjustments to the test the number of cards was increased to 31 (Morgan, 2002). Of this number one card remained blank while the others were impressed with an image which was either a photograph or a drawing.

The set of images used for the TAT has evidently undergone some changes since their development in 1995. The fourth modification or series, as they are called, is probably the one that is most widespread. That is not to suggest that individual clinicians haven’t made their own modifications and deleted or included images as they see fit. Morgan (1995) gives a very comprehensive description of the cards that are in series 4 as well as traces the authorship/ownership of the images that are used.

  1. A. Morgan, one of the developers, was initially credited with reproducing a number of the images that were available in earlier series. These images were often replicas of original work with slight modifications such as the removal of objects, modification of colors among other things (Morgan, 1995).

Examples of images on the card include a photograph of a young boy contemplating a violin that rests on a table in front of him, a drawing with the form of a boy huddled against a couch while sitting on the floor with his head bowed on his right hand and a revolver next to him, a young woman with her face held down, her right hand covering her face and her other arm reaching towards a wooden door.

There was a card of what appears to be a middle-aged woman standing on the threshold of a half-opened door looking into a room, a young woman sitting with her chin in her hands while looking into space, four men in overalls lying easily in the grass, a young woman with her head leaning against a man’s shoulder, an old man leaning over the form of a young man lying in a sofa, his arm outstretched above the figure’s face as well as a row-boat on the bank of a stream and many others (Morgan, 1995).

The cards generally address universalistic themes and each client attaches their own meaning or impressions to the image based on their own imaginations or psychological motivations. Unfortunately there is considerable controversy as to how the test should be interpreted and many question its validity and reliability on the basis that the scoring procedures are not very well defined or universal.

Generally clinicians anticipate that patients will produce narrative descriptions of the images which are in some way reflective of their own internal “feelings, needs and motivations” (Hansemark, 2000). The basis of this assumption is in psychoanalytical theory, according to Hansemark (2000), in which it is argued that individuals cannot help but project their psychological state into the narrative. By having clients depict an original story based on the stimulus material presented, psychiatrists believe that they will eventually be able to “expose the underlying inhibited tendencies which the subject … is not willing to admit. or cannot admit because he is unconscious of them” (Hansemark, 2000).

To determine what these underlying tendencies are is quite a different thing. Often it is up to the therapist to sift through the feelings and mental states projected in the characters created by the client in order to discover those psychological states are reflective of the client’s own state or that can shed more light on a client’s state of being. Gough (1948) classifies this task as a “game … in which the stories are allegories whose implications are not elucidated.” (p. 92).

During the patient’s narrative the clinician attempts to record the subject’s narrative word for word. Prompts are usually discouraged, simply allowing the subject to develop their story as they see fit. At the end of the narrative there are two approaches that could be taken. One author suggests that it is better to allow the subjects themselves to interpret the meanings beneath their narratives in order to identify their own underlying feelings etc. (Keiser & Prather, 1990). On the other hand Deabler (1947) believes that the burden of interpretation should be left up to the clinician. Since this type of interpretation will obviously be subjective Deabler (1947) recommends that the best way of tackling such problems is through proper training “clinical experience and … analytical ability” (p. 248).

Johnson (1994) suggests that its “ease of administration and clinical richness” (p. 314) are what distinguish the Thematic Apperception Test as a preferred instrument by clinicians and which also have contributed to its continued use over time despite criticisms of its reliability and validity. The TAT, Johnson (1994) adds, is very cost effective and efficient and thus a very useful tool for non-neopsychologists who are attempting to determine whether or not a patient requires further cognitive assessment. He believes that the results available from the TAT may be very useful in indicating or screening for possible cognitive decline and thus enables the clinician to decide if further assessment of the subject is necessary.

The Thematic Apperception Images are now quite readily available for clinicians who wish to use them in their everyday practice. In the early days of their development the TAT cards were made by gluing photographs to a cardboard background. Of course this was time-consuming for some and also meant that the cards were easily subject to wear and tear. In modifications of the test, beginning with the fourth series of cards produced, these cards were given a more durable appearance. At this stage producers began printing the images on the card rather than simply gluing on the images as their use began to expand to more and more clinicians (Morgan, 1995).

As hinted previously, the reliability and validity of the Thematic Apperception Test have been brought into question and even today those issues are yet to be resolved. Lundy (1985 & 1988) as well as Hibbard, Mitchell and Porcerelli (2001), Hansemark (2000) and Alvarado (1994) have all examined the one or another aspect of the validity and reliability of the TAT. Lundy (1985) found a surprisingly high test-retest correlation for the instrument, contrary to what previous reports have shown.

In fact, he argues that it is quite difficult to trust tests of the reliability and validity of the TAT based on the work of a cross-section of researchers simply as a result of the variance in the test environments and the cards that are used in the administration of the test (Lundy, 1988).  Lundy (1988) laments that, because of the variations in the test situations, the test has not had a fair chance to prove its worth. To support this point, as a counter to his 1985 discovery of high test-retest reliability, Lundy later obtained validity coefficients close to zero in a subsequent survey in 1985.

Similarly Hibbard, Mitchell and Porcerelli (2001) found varying levels of internal consistency based on the number of cards that are used. They concluded that the optimal number of cards to be used to ensure reasonable internal consistency levels is between 10 and 12. Hansemark (2000) tested the TAT on a single scale, that of its ability to predict an individual’s need to achieve specifically as it relates to starting a new business. His longitudinal survey revealed that the TAT is not a valid predictor of need for achievement. Alvarado (1994), in her research, established that clinicians have placed a high clinical validity on the instrument but that the researched based validity is questionable since it has not been widely discovered that the TAT is able to adequately predict behavior.

Obviously the TAT has had some amount of usefulness for clinicians in helping them to have some amount of understanding as to the underlying psychological conditions of their client. However the results for this are not consistent and therefore it does not seem that in its current state the TAT will gain much support. What is needed is for a more effective system of administering and scoring the test to be developed among clinicians so that results would be uniformed.

In this way researchers will have the framework on which to build proper research which will be able to determine conclusively the validity and reliability of the TAT as a predictor of behavior. For the time being clinicians who have found the test to be useful should also seek to improve their own practice and use of the instrument and share their best practices with colleagues. More effective training of new entrants to the field in the use of the test will ensure consistency in the long run, if not immediately. The skeptics should also recommend ways to improve the current procedure. Based on the reports of clinicians the test can be useful and thus it is their job to ensure that its usage continues and is improved upon.


Alvarado, N. (1994). Empirical validity of the Thematic Apperception Test. Journal of Personality Assessment, 63(1), 59-79.

Cramer, P. (1999). Future directions for the Thematic Apperception Test. Journal of Personality Assessment, 72(1), 74-92.

Deabler, H. L. (1947, Jul). The Psychotherapeutic use of the Thematic Apperception Test. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 3(3), 246-252.

Gough, H. G. (1948, Jan). The frame of reference of the Thematic Apperception Test. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 4(1), 90-92.

Hansemark, O. C. (2000). Predictive validity of TAT and CMPS on the entrepeneurial activity, “start of a new business”: A longitudinal survey. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 15(7), 634-654.

Hibbard, S., Mitchell, D. & Porcerelli, J. (2001). Internal consistency of the object relations and social cognition scales for the Thematic Apperception Test. Journal of Personality Assessment, 77(3), 408-419.

Johnson, J. L. (1994). The Thematic Apperception Test and Alzheimer’s disease. Journal of Personality Assessment, 62(2), 314-319.

Keiser, R. E. & Prather, E. N. (1990) What Is the TAT? A review of ten years of research. Journal of Personality Assessment, 55(3&4), 800-803.

Lindzey, G. & Silverman, M. (1959, Sep). Thematic Apperception Test: Technique of group administration, sex differences, and the role of verbal productivity. Journal of Personality, 27(3), 311-323.

Lundy, A. (1985). The reliability of the Thematic Apperception Test. Journal of Personality Assessment, 49(2), 141-145.

Lundy, A. (1988). Instructional set and Thematic Apperception Test validity. Journal of Personality Assessment, 52(2), 309-320.

Morgan, W. G. (1995). Origin and history of the Thematic Apperception Test images. Journal of Personality Assessment, 65(2), 237-254.

Morgan, W. G. (2002). Origin and history of the earliest Thematic Apperception Test pictures. Journal of Personality Assessment, 79(3), 422-445.

Thematic Apperception Test Essay