Projective Tests in Psychological Assessment – The Thematic Apperception Test (TAT)

Dr. Donna L. Roberts
TAT Figure 3

Shortly after the turn of the century, Binet and Simon used children's verbal responses to pictures as tests of their cognitive abilities (Rabin, 1968). This approach to studying psychological functioning was formalized by Morgan and Murray (1935) in their publication of the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT). The TAT consists of a set of 20 pictures, which generally have human figures of recognizable age and gender (although different pictures are used for males and females). A subset of pictures is selected on the basis of the nature of the client's problems, since different pictures may tap into different psychological themes. The examinee is shown a picture and asked to tell a story about it, including four components: (1) what is going on in the picture; (2) what led up to the picture; (3) what is going to happen next; and (4) what are the people in the picture thinking and feeling. The psychologist records the stories verbatim for later analysis.

Figure 1 – Example Images in the TAT
Example TAT Images

The TAT is based on Murray's (1938) theory of personality. According to Murray, there are many psychological needs that influence how we perceive and respond to our environment (e.g., dominance, aggression, achievement, exhibition, and deference). Hence, such needs will be evident in people's responses to TAT cards. Since its introduction in 1938, the TAT has been a popular and widely used psychological test.

Murray (1938) described a method for scoring and interpreting the TAT, which involves rating the degree to which 36 psychological needs are expressed in the examinee's stories. However, many other scoring systems have been developed by others. Unfortunately, no one scoring system has prevailed enough to be considered a standard. In practice, many clinical psychologists do not use objective scoring systems for interpreting the TAT (Klopfer & Taulbee, 1976). As a result, there is little empirical evidence to document the reliability or validity of the TAT.

Additionally, the TAT has been criticized for its images being old-fashioned and out-of-date, thus rendering them ineffective in modern contexts. Psychological Science in the Public Interest (2000) further noted:

Like other projective techniques, the TAT has been criticized on the basis of poor psychometric properties. Criticisms include that the TAT is unscientific because it cannot be proved to be valid or reliable. As stories about the cards are a reflection of both the conscious and unconscious motives of the storyteller, it is difficult to disprove the conclusions of the examiner and to find appropriate behavioral measures that would represent the personality traits under examination. (Lilienfeld, Wood, & Garb, 2000).

Still, the TAT remains popular in both psycholgocal research and clinical settings.


Blum, G. S. (1950). The Blacky Pictures: Manual of Instructions. New York, NY: Psychological Corporation.

Klopfer, W. G., & Taulbee, E. S. (1976). Projective tests. Annual Review of Psychology, 27, 543–567.

Lilienfeld, S. O., Wood, J. M., & Garb, H. N. (2000). The Scientific Status of Projective Techniques. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 1(2), 27–66.

Murray, H. A. (1938). Explorations in Personality. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Rabin, A. I. & Haworth, M. R. (Eds.). (1960). Projective Techniques with Children. New York: Grune & Stratton.

Watkins, C. E., Campbell, V. L., Nieberding, R. & Hallmark, R. (1995). Contemporary practice of psychological assessment by clinical psychologists. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 26: 54-60.

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Writer and university professor researching media psych, generational studies, addiction psychology, human and animal rights, and the intersection of art and psychology.


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