Critical Review – Thematic Apperception Test

© Katherine V. Morris – 2010/12/17

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General Information

The Thematic Apperception Test (TAT) is one of the more widely used projective-type techniques to measure personality, though its scientific validity remains highly controversial (Lilienfeld et al., 2000). Projective techniques use unstructured means such as drawing, storytelling and interpretation of pictures to reveal more subtle aspects of the personality (Hood & Johnson, 2007, p.163). TAT is a test using a series of pictures for which the test-taker describes and tells a story. It was developed by Henry A. Murray, Christiana D. Morgan, and the staff of the Harvard Psychological Clinic, and was first published in 1943 by Harvard University Press. The most current edition, by H. A. Murray & Leopold Bellak was published in 1973 and can be purchased through Pearson assessments for $86.00. TAT is a Level C test which must be administered and interpreted by a clinical psychologist, or students under a supervising psychologist. The test administrator must have extensive training in interpreting the test takers stories in order to score the results adequately. Even so, according to Hood & Johnson (2007), there is still considerable variability in the conclusions made by experienced test users as well as much criticism based on its lack of psychometric measurement (p. 165).

Purpose and Population

The purpose of TAT is to reveal “dominant drives, emotions, sentiments, complexes and conflicts of a personality” (Murray, 1971, p. 3). TAT should be used in conjunction with other means of psychological testing that reveals more “overt” aspects of the personality, as TAT reveals the more subtle, or “covert” aspect of one’s character (Murray, 1971, p. 18).

The test is used with ages ranging from 4 years of age through adulthood. It is utilized with a variety of populations with varying levels of intelligence and or psychological conditions. There are a total of 30 picture cards and 1 blank card in the series. Some of these pictures are for specific populations i.e., men, women, boys or girls. When giving the test, only 19 of the picture cards and 1 blank card is used (specific to the testee). The TAT is administered in two, fifty minute sessions given at least one day apart. During each session, ten of the twenty chosen cards are used.

The testee is asked to make up a story around each picture and is encouraged to be as creative as possible with their stories. The test is divided into two sessions, usually at least one day apart (Murray, 1971, p. 5). During the first session, the testee is given ten consecutive picture cards to create a story about. The second session is similar, but the content of these cards are more “threatening” in nature (Hood & Johnson, 2007, p.164). They are given specific questions to answer about the pictures and are given roughly five minutes for each story. (Murray, 1971, p. 6). The idea is that through telling the stories, the testee will reveal aspects of him or herself that otherwise might go unspoken or unrecognized. These stories are then analyzed and scored by the test administrator. According to Murray (1971) regarding the psychologist analyzing the stories, he states:

Besides a certain flair for the task, an interpreter of the TAT should have a background of clinical experience, observing, interviewing and testing patients of all sorts; and, if he is to get much below the surface, knowledge of psychoanalysis and some practice in translating the imagery of dreams and ordinary speech into elementary psychological components. In addition, he should have months of training in the use of this specific test. (p. 8)

Although the test appears simple in nature, it is quite complex and much training should be sought before using it (Murray, 1971). It appears that the TAT is not always given as was initially intended. Currently, according to Anassassi (), less than half of the cards are used in the testing process with each client (p. 419), and varying methods of interpreting the results have made it difficult to “assess its psychometric properties” (p. 420). Regardless of the intended usage and the conflicting ideas regarding the tests validity (Hood, 2007), it is still widely used as a means of personality assessment (p. 165).

Practical Evaluation of the TAT

One advantage of the TAT includes the simplicity of administration and ease in which the test is transported and stored. The TAT consists of a user manual, 30, 9 1/4 ” x 11 ” picture cards, a pad of paper, a writing instrument or a tape recorder, and a clipboard if the examiner prefers to use one for recording responses (Altman Weiss, Aronow, Reznikoff, 2001).

The TAT, like most test batteries, should be administered in a well lit room that is quiet and comfortable. The test-taker and examiner should be seated adjacent from one another at a desk or table so that the examiner can view the picture cards from the same perspective as the test-taker. Murray (1943) believed it was important that the test-taker have “good reason to feel the environment as sympathetic and to anticipate receptivity, goodwill and appreciation from the examiner.” Needless to say, the test-taker should feel comfortable in the surroundings, and the  rapport between examiner and test-taker should be relatively friendly (Altman Weiss, Aronow, Reznikoff, 2001; Murray,1943). It is important that the test-taker understands, or be told, how test results will be used, and any confidentiality issues relevant to the test should be addressed (Altman Weiss, Aronow, Reznikoff, 2001).

Murray’s Thematic Apperception Test manual (supplied with each test) offers word-for-word instructions for the examiner to (memorize or) read to the test-taker before and during the test; the manual also offers sample dialogue for the examiner to use with differing age groups, and for when/if complications arise during the administration of the TAT(Altman Weiss, Aronow, Reznikoff, 2001; Murray,1943).

Alternative & Culturally Sensitive Versions

Alternative projective story-telling tests have been created for use with different populations and age groups. The CAT, created by Bellak and Bellak in 1948, is for use with children, and is easier to use cross-culturally, as it depicts animal characters relatively ambiguously with regard to gender and culture. The CAT-H, also developed by Bellak and Bellak, in 1965, is also designed for children, but humans are depicted in place of the animal characters in the same scenes as the CAT animals. The purpose of the CAT-H design is to appeal to children who respond better to human character stimuli (AltmanWeiss, Aronow, Reznikoff, 2001). A more recently developed test by McArthur & Roberts, 1982, is the RATC, which presents more modern pictures and includes a standardized scoring system for quantifying adaptive and clinical personality dimensions. Analogous to the CAT for children, is the SAT for older adults, again developed by Bellak & Bellak, in 1973, which shows pictures depicting older individuals in situations involving common environmental elements of the elderly, including loneliness and illness. The GAT, created by Wolf & Wolf in 1971, is said to contain pictures themed like the SAT, but more positively toned (AltmanWeiss, Aronow, Reznikoff, 2001).

An Indian modification of the TAT was developed by Chowdhury in 1960 replacing western images with characters wearing traditional Indian apparel in relatively the same situations as the original TAT. TEMAS, or Tell-Me-A Story, created by Costantino et al. in  1981, is a Hispanic version of the TAT, depicting urban ethnic minority figures, cultural themes, and symbols, and these picture cards are in color. The Apperceptive Personality Test, or APT, is a relatively new projective story telling test developed in 1990 by Holmstrom, Silber & Karp, and is used with adolescents and adults of any racial background. The APT includes only 8 picture card, and unlike the TAT (that allows the examiner to choose cards), every card is shown to the test-taker. The TAT-Z, created in 1975 by Erasmus, is an early version of the TAT designed for use with African Americans. However, its design was intended to measure attitudes toward White authority and has been criticized for bias. (AltmanWeiss, Aronow, Reznikoff, 2001).

Scoring Options

There are several scoring systems for the TAT. Murray’s original system (1943) involved analyzing every sentence or every story, taking note of test-taker’s motives, feelings and needs, and ranking these (AltmanWeiss, Aronow, Reznikoff, 2001). In addition, the original scoring system requires the interpreter to analyze what Murray called “press”, which constitutes the environmental factors depicted in the test-takers stories. This is a time consuming scoring system and has not been widely used (AltmanWeiss, Aronow, Reznikoff, 2001).

Zubin et al., in 1965, devised a counting system that covered story themes, perceptual distortions, character identity, identity of objects, and deviation from instructions as a means of scoring (AltmanWeiss, Aronow, Reznikoff, 2001). The checklist is quite detailed, but can highlight perplexing and abstruse aspects of TAT responses, and may indicate a need for further investigation (AltmanWeiss, Aronow, Reznikoff, 2001). Both Murray’s and Zubin’s scoring systems are probably most appropriate for research (AltmanWeiss, Aronow, Reznikoff, 2001).

In 1997, Bellack & Abrams, introduced and analysis sheet that summarizes a story’s main character, or hero, and his or her drives, needs, world view, conflicts, anxieties, defenses, and the psychoanalytical ego integration(AltmanWeiss, Aronow, Reznikoff, 2001). This interpretation also requires that the interpreter write three brief summaries about the test-takers stories; the first summary should be descriptive, the second interpretative, and the third should be a diagnostic version (AltmanWeiss, Aronow, Reznikoff, 2001). Writing summaries is meant to ground the interpreter and reduce the chance of “wild interpretation”, and the interpreter is able to glance across these brief statements and recognize commonalties and repetitions (AltmanWeiss, Aronow, Reznikoff, 2001).

The idiographic approach to scoring is most often used for the TAT, and this involves examining the individual’s responses and asking “why would a human being say that out of all the possibilities that exist?’ (AltmanWeiss, Aronow, Reznikoff, 2001, p. 17). This type of interpretation allows the examiner to personalize the test takers responses and give these just attention and thought.

The examiner of the TAT must be aware of what to look for in TAT stores in order to recognize revealing information. According to Altman Weiss, Aronow and Rezinek, 2001, the most common potential domains for analysis are: 1) story content, and its focus on the main character, or hero, with particularly attention to this character’s needs and drives; 2) the story’s hero as he or she represents important figures in the test-taker’s life (object-relations); 3) the story’s environments as it represents the story-tellers world view; 4) the outcome of the story, as it can reveal optimism or pessimism, and 5) the way in which the story fits the picture, as its closeness or distance may indicate the test-takers inner world. In addition, the test-taker’s tone of voice, language, and behavior should be taken into consideration.  As with any projective test, examiners must use caution when interpreting results.

Technical Evaluation of the TAT

            The term ‘apperception’ was coined by the 17th century polymathic philosopher Gottfried Leibniz; it refers to personal insight which can be obtained through reflection upon oneself (Jorgensen, 2010). Apperception does not refer to strictly unconscious material; it refers to insight about oneself gained through self-reflection. However, the philosophical definition of apperception is not how the term is used in the Thematic Apperception Test. Clinical psychology changed the meaning of the term to something clinical rather than philosophical. According to Lilienfeld Wood, & Garb, “Murray chose the term ‘apperception’ as opposed to ‘perception’ to denote the fact that respondents actively interpret TAT stimuli in accord with their personality traits and life experiences” (2000, p. 39).

Administrators say that “the TAT is best used as an instrument to assess the psychodynamics of interpersonal relationships” (Aronow, Weiss, Reznikoff, 2001, p. 30). It appears that those who use the TAT as a clinical device believe that object relations patterns are one and the same as personality structure. Greenberg & Mitchell, two prominent historians of psychoanalysis, state that “‘Object Relations’ is the general term encompassing people’s relationships with others” (Greenberg & Mitchell, 1983, p. viii). This is much different from saying that relationship dynamics are none other than personality. Many object relations theories are diametrically opposed to one another. Thus, if the TAT is being used to reveal something that only some people agree actually exists (e.g. the ongoing ‘need’ for aggression in Freudian theory) then investigations which claim to ‘prove’ the existence of something for which there is otherwise no proof cannot be taken seriously. This is the case with the TAT. Many clinical studies using the TAT have been conducted to ‘prove’ that the TAT is capable of revealing known psychiatric conditions. But this is not scientifically acceptable research design “because clinicians are typically interested in detecting the presence of low base rate phenomena, most research designs used with known pathological groups will overestimate the predictive validity of test indicators. Thus, an index derived from a projective technique may possess construct validity without being useful for predictive purposes in real world settings” (Lilienfeld, Wood, Garb, 2000, p. 28).

Reliability, Validity, Normative Data, Scoring

            Validity “indexes derived from projective techniques should exhibit … a consistent relation to one or more specific psychological symptoms, psychological disorders, real-world behaviors, or personality trait measures in … several methodologically rigorous validation studies that have been … performed by independent researchers or research groups” (Lilienfeld, Wood, Garb, 2000, p. 31). According to these researchers, “indexes that satisfy these three criteria will be provisionally regarded as ‘empirically supported’ … however, … even empirically supported indexes may be essentially useless for predictive purposes, especially when the clinician is interested in detecting low base rate phenomena” (Lilienfeld, Wood, Garb, 2000, p. 31).

A massive amount of research has been done on the validity and reliability of the TAT. Over the years many different card sets have been used. As a consequence, it is very difficult to compare the results across studies. While there are a few studies showing positive correlation between TAT scores and some psychometric properties, the overwhelming majority of TAT literature finds no relationship between test scores and other indexes of personality or psychopathology (Lilienfeld, Wood, Garb, 2000, p. 40). Furthermore, there are few norms that would support a consistent scoring system for TAT (Lilienfeld, Wood, Garb, 2000, p. 39). Also, there is the “selective tendency of negative findings to remain unpublished. … Given the massive volume of research conducted on many projective techniques, it is possible that a substantial number of findings unfavorable to these techniques have not appeared in print. If so, the published literature on these techniques could paint an unduly positive picture of their validity” (Lilienfeld, Wood, Garb, 2000, p. 31). Because it is still debated by researchers if the TAT results should or should not match self-report measures, it is not clear if some reported positive correlations between TAT score and self-reports would argue for or against the validity of TAT indexes (Lilienfeld, Wood, Garb, 2000, p. 40).

The TAT does not contain zero-order validity and has no valid norms. Zero-order “validity is a prerequisite for the clinical utility of projective techniques [...and] the absence of zero-order validity renders moot any examination of either incremental validity or treatment utility” (Lilienfeld, Wood, Garb, 2000, p. 31). ‘Zero-order validity’ refers to basic validity; that is, a study measures what it intends to measure, and ‘incremental validity’ means that two measures are conducted on the same construct and they both reveal something new about what is being studied. In the case of TAT studies, ‘zero-order’ refers specifically to the direct relationship between the two variables of measurement and construct.  Higher order validity would exclude the effect of other intermediate variables.  So if there is no direct relationship between score and construct, there is no point discussing any treatment utility.

With the creation of defined scoring systems for the TAT some issues with interscorer reliabilities have been overcome.  However, there are still strong internal consistency and test-retest reliability concerns, in other words, cards that should measure the same construct point to different interpretations and repeated measures with the same subject at different times gives widely different results. (Lilienfeld, Wood, Garb, 2000, p. 41-42). The few studies that did claim that the TAT is reliable could never be repeated, therefore, it is not actually reliable; it simply has a number of zealots who like to use it because they rely on psychoanalytic theory in their clinical practice. Historically, the TAT has been desperate to prove itself as a valid and reliable tool that reveals real and persistent psychiatric conditions, but it has failed to prove itself. Lilienfeld, Wood, and Garb quote several meta-analyses of the TAT that all report only very low correlation of TAT scores with self-report indexes and behavioral outcomes.  Furthermore, there are concerns that even these weak correlation would disappear when potentially confounding variables like intelligence would be considered in the analysis (Lilienfeld, Wood, Garb, 2000, p. 42).

Scoring Systems

            Some proponents of the TAT have design elaborate scoring systems in an attempt to overcome the aforementioned problems with reliability and validity. This has not solved the problems, as independent researchers have noted:

Even the few promising TAT scoring systems, however, are not yet appropriate for routine clinical use.  For all of these systems, (a) adequate norms are not available, (b) test-retest reliability is either questionable or unknown, (c) field reliability is untested and (d) there is almost no research to ensure that such systems are not biased against one or more cultural groups. … Although there is modest support for construct validity of several TAT scoring schemes, the relevance of these findings to clinical practice is doubtful. In addition, there is no convincing evidence that TAT scoring schemes … possess incremental validity above and beyond self-report indexes of these constructs  (Lilienfeld, Wood, Garb, 2000, p. 46).

In conflict with the above, Anatasi & Urbina, proponents of the TAT, maintain:

A fair amount of normative information has been published regarding the most frequent response characteristics for each card, including the way each card is perceived, the themes developed, the roles ascribed to the characters, emotional tones expressed, speed of responses, length of stories, and the like. … Although these normative data provide a general framework for interpreting individual responses, most clinicians rely heavily on ‘subjective norms’ built up through their own experience with the test and on the knowledge they have acquired bout the examiner through other means. A number of quantitative scoring schemes and rating scales have been developed that yield good scorer reliability. Since their application is rather time-consuming, however, such scoring procedures are seldom used in clinical practice (Anastasi & Urbina, 1997, p. 420).

This is in direct opposition to what has been concluded by research design analysts Lilienfeld, Wood, & Garb, who explain in detail in various journal articles that none of the normative data on the TAT is actually valid though it claims to be.

One researcher found that “an experimental group of 30 subjects was frustrated; a control group of 30 subjects was not. A statistically significant increased punishment expectancy was found in the stories of the frustrated subjects” (Crandall, 1951, p. 403). This is an example of information that could have been gathered faster and easier through interview or questionnaire methods. The TAT has not been shown to predict more about a person or a population than what is predicted by blind demographic studies (Lilienfeld, Wood, Garb, 2000, p. 40).

Here is an example of the results of one TAT administration:

Emotional ties to family are strong but there is unrelenting hostility to the father. He feels he cannot rely on the love of women but cannot quite bring himself to actively reject them. The feelings of hostility toward the father cannot be completely accepted by him. On the other hand he does little to overcome these feelings. He fantasies himself in the father role, particularly as a better provider than his father. Underneath this fantasy there is anxiety about his ability to maintain this position. He feels a real responsibility for his family’s welfare but does not feel quite adequate. At times he envisions a stroke of luck which enables him to aid them. Delinquent tendencies are extremely active. He pays lip service to socialization as there develops a superficial realization of the existence of social punishment (Saxe, 1950, p. 125).

As we can see, without even knowing how the test was scored to result in the above ‘analysis’, it appears dubious. It is easy to conceive of the test administrator or ‘analyst’ as projective his own psychoanalytic ideas onto the test-taker’s stories.

Tat as a Clinical Assessment Tool

            Clinicians who use the TAT despite it lack of reliability and validity are operating out of a hypothesis that has been tested many times yet never proven for efficacy: “The basic hypothesis of projective techniques, which maintains that the individual projects his traits, attitudes, strivings, problems, and complexes into his ‘creation,’ has been verified for the thematic method experimentally … and clinically” (Harrison & Rotter, 1945, p. 97). Notice that these researchers did not say that the TAT was found to be reliable; they only said that the ‘projection hypothesis’ has been verified; that is, they think that the theory of projection is verified by the TAT and they constantly pretend that their studies are valid when they are not, which is revelatory about the field of psychoanalytic psychology. Nevertheless, if the TAT is useful in clinical practice, it is so only if the patients or clients of clinicians believe in the psychoanalytic theory being imposed onto them. If psychoanalytic theory is rejected, the TAT is immediately rendered useless even if studies do find it to be useful because patients will resist the treatment recommended to them by the psychoanalytic practitioners. In turn, psychoanalytic practitioners use patient ‘resistance’ as ‘proof’ that their diagnoses are accurate, that patients are resisting the truth about themselves.

            “The principal advantages of most projective techniques relative to structured personality tests are typically hypothesized to be their capacity to (a) bypass or circumvent the conscious defenses of respondents and (b) allow clinicians to gain privileged access to important psychological information (e.g., conflicts, impulses) of which respondents are not aware. … As a consequence, proponents of projective techniques have often maintained that these techniques provide incremental validity in the assessment of personality and psychopathology above and beyond structured measures” (Lilienfeld, Wood, Garb, 2000, p. 29).

“In using projective techniques as a method of assessment, counselors present unstructured tasks to the examinee, whose responses to these tasks are expected to reflect needs, experiences, inner states, and thought processes. This concept is know as the projective hypothesis — that responses to ambiguous stimuli reflect a person’s basic personality. People often reveal more about themselves in their interpretation of a situation than they do about the situation itself, specially if the situation is ambiguous. A variety of ambiguous stimuli have been used for assessment purposes, such as inkblots, pictures, and incomplete sentences.  Examinees usually respond in the form of stories, descriptions, completed sentences, or associations. Interpretations have generally drawn on psychoanalytic theory” (Hood & Johnson, 2007, p. 163).

“Many of those who use the TAT do not use all 20 cards but select 8 to 12 of them and administer them … in a single session. The TAT is usually not scored in any objective fashion. … The assumption in interpreting the results is that examinees reveal their conflicts, experiences, needs, and strivings in their storytelling responses” (Hood & Johnson, 2007, p. 164).

“In assessing the importance or strength of a particular need or press for the individual, special attention is given to the intensity, duration, and frequency of the its occurrence in different stories, as well as to the uniqueness of its association with a given picture. The assumption is made that unusual material, which departs from the common responses to each picture, is more likely to have significance for the individual” (Anastasi & Urbina, 1997, p. 420).

The authors of many studies done on the TAT have concluded that it is reliable while others who evaluate the studies done on the TAT have concluded that almost all of them are illegitimate studies. One of the reasons why some studies evaluating the TAT’s efficacy are unreliable is that “some respondents may display high levels of a given attribute … on the TAT not because they possess high levels of this attribute, but because they are fantasizing about possessing high levels of this attribute. Conversely, some TAT respondents have maintained that individuals can exhibit low levels of an attribute on the TAT not because they possess low levels of this attribute, but because they are repressing or otherwise inhibiting the expression of this attribute” (Lilienfeld, Wood, Garb, 2000, p. 39).

Another reason most of the studies on the TAT are illegitimate is because “Murray recommended that TAT examiners select approximately 20 cards whose themes appear particularly relevant to the respondent’s presenting difficulties, and administer these cards across two sessions. Nevertheless, these recommendations are almost never followed today. There is considerable variability in the number of TAT stimuli administered by different examiners, and most administer between 5 and 12 cards and do so in only one session. … Moreover, the specific cards selected and order of card administration vary greatly across examiners” (Lilienfeld, Wood, Garb, 2000, p. 39). Therefore, studies on “projective techniques [are] difficult to interpret, because some investigators have used markedly different stimuli, scoring methods, or both, across studies” (Lilienfeld, Wood, Garb, 2000, p. 29). Only 3% of psychologists working in forensics use a standardized scoring system (Lilienfeld, Wood, Garb, 2000, p. 39). “Instead, most interpret the TAT on an impressionistic basis using clinical judgment and intuition” (Lilienfeld, Wood, Garb, 2000, p. 39).

            “Reliability is important because validity is limited by the square root of reliability. … As a consequence, validity cannot be high when reliability is very low. Incremental validity is of considerable pragmatic importance in the evaluation of projective techniques because many of these techniques necessitate extensive training and are time consuming to administer, score, and interpret. If projective techniques do not contribute psychologically useful information above and beyond more easily collected data … then their routine clinical use is difficult to justify. The question of incremental validity is also significant for theoretical reasons because many proponents of projective techniques claim that these techniques can provide valuable information not assessed by self-report indexes” (Lilienfeld, Wood, Garb, 2000, p. 28).

“Several scoring systems have been developed in order to help standardize interpretation of TAT material. Murray’s … original scoring system involved analyzing every sentence of every story, taking note of and ranking the needs (motives and feelings) of the main character and press (opposing forces in the environment). Interactions between need and press and outcomes were also taken into account. Partly due to the somewhat unwieldly, time-consuming nature of Murray’s method, this system has not been widely used by psychologists” (Aronow, Weiss, Reznikoff, 2001, p. 14).

Three clinical researchers in 1956 claimed to have found 10 signs that detect homosexuality using the TAT (Davids, Joelson, & McArthur, 1956, p. 163). Homosexuality was thought of as a clinical diagnosable psychiatric condition at the time. Even though these ‘researchers’ used different cards for each study group, as well as a different number of cards with each group they tested (one group was known homosexuals and the other group was supposedly heterosexual) they, and many advocates of the TAT, still thought their study was real scientific research (Davids, Joelson, & McArthur, 1956).


Tat as a Research Tool

            From early 50s to early 90s TAT was used to measure need for achievement, and this information was found to correlate between the rise and fall of civilizations (Spangler, 1992, p. 140). Even though the TAT is generally not reliable as clinical tool it has been found to be reliable as research tool measuring the need for achievement; however, questionnaires measuring the need for achievement are even more reliable. Need for achievement and career success can be predicted using TAT, but questionnaires are a better prediction tool (Spangler, 1992, p. 140). “If psychological instruments do not ultimately facilitate treatment in some measurable way, they are of doubtful utility in the clinical context, although they may nonetheless be useful for certain research or predictive purposes” (Lilienfeld, Wood, Garb, 2000, p. 28).

Some studies have found that the TAT is a reliable way to measure ‘need for achievement’, however, other studies have shown that questionnaires reveal more and are more accurate information than the TAT in measuring the ‘need for achievement’ (Spangler, 1992, p. 149). “105 empirical studies using either TAT or questionnaire measures of achievement, motivation, or both, were content analyzed to provide data for two separate meta-analyses” (Spangler, 1992, p. 144). Some researchers have “directly compared the predictive validity of TAT measures of power, achievement, and affiliation with questionnaire measures and found correlations of questionnaire measures with criteria to be higher than correlations of TAT measures with outcomes. … These circumstances include situations in which questionnaires and behavior are assessed within a short time of each other, situations in which respondents infer their need for achievement from their perceptions of their behavior, and occasions in which the questionnaire and the behavioral measures share items” (Spangler, 1992, p. 142).

Some researchers have tried to use other measures to verify results of the TAT; in doing so, they get conflicted results, For example:

The Faith in People Scale (FIP), Loevinger SCT, and Blatt Malevolence/Benevolence scales predicted the affect-tone measure for the TAT but did not predict affect-tone for the interviews. The Social Adjustment Scale (SAS), in contrast, did the opposite, predicting affect-tone for the interpersonal episodes but not TAT scores. This dichotomy appears to reflect the difference between relatively enduring versus relatively current cognitive-affective schemata. Representations that reflect current concerns are probably more conscious as well as mood congruent. The fact that the interview and TAT data correlate gives evidence to the proposition that current working representations are derivative of enduring schemas as well as situational variables, such as momentary moods, daily events, or recent life changes or stresses. Thus, one might interpret the malevolent expectations characteristic of borderline patients less as a trait that is manifest uniformly cross-situationally than as a tendency to interpret social information in a malevolent way when, experience is assimilated to malevolent schemata activated by current situations, fantasies, or wishes (Barends, Westen, Leigh, Silbert, & Byers, 1990, p. 331).

Part of the conflicted results may be due to the proliferation of scoring techniques, but even more so because almost all of the time, scoring systems are not used at all, as noted by Lilienfeld, Wood, & Garb:

American psychologists practicing in juvenile and family courts discovered that only 3 percent relied on a standardized TAT scoring system. Unfortunately, some evidence suggests that clinicians who interpret the TAT in an intuitive way are likely to over-diagnose psychological disturbance. Many standardized scoring systems are available for the TAT, but some of the more popular ones display weak ‘test-retest’ reliability: they tend to yield inconsistent scores from one picture-viewing session to the next. Their validity is frequently questionable as well; studies that find positive results are often contradicted by other investigations. For example, several scoring systems have proved unable to differentiate normal individuals from those who are psychotic or depressed. A few standardized scoring systems for the TAT do appear to do a good job of discerning certain aspects of personality—notably the need to achieve and a person’s perceptions of others (a property called ‘object relations’). But many times individuals who display a high need to achieve do not score well on measures of actual achievement, so the ability of that variable to predict a person’s behavior may be limited. These scoring systems currently lack norms and so are not yet ready for application outside of research settings, but they merit further investigation (Lilienfeld, Wood, & Garb, 2001, pp. 84-85).

The TAT was used in a study of 22 adults with agenesis of the corpus callosum (ACC, a brain abnormality). Results showed that “individuals with ACC used fewer emotion words overall than their matched control group [of 30 normal adults]. This semantic category includes words such as “happy,” “upset,” “devastated,” “excited,” or “downhearted.” Lesser use of emotion words is most clearly evident in diminished use of words denoting Negative Emotions. Given that the TAT cards are designed to elicit negative emotionality, this omission is important. For normal individuals, a typical story may begin with negatively charged semantic content, but then end up turning out well for the characters in the end” (Turk, 2010, p. 47). This is an interesting study, because it reveals that in the field of scientific psychology, the TAT has a reputation of inducing Negative Emotions, and if this is true, it is easy to see how test-takers of the TAT may easily be over-diagnosed, over-pathologised. This is no small issue since a wrong diagnosis or an over-diagnosis can lead to unduly harsh or involuntary treatment, and in some cases even ruin a person’s life.

The Power and Limitation of TAT

            A psychiatrist at a military hospital conducted a study and determined that the TAT is useful for “uncovering unconscious needs, sentiments, and conflicts not easily obtainable in interview” (Jaques, 1945, p. 374). Many evaluators of the TAT say that it is not true that the TAT reveals more than what is revealed through an interview. If both claims are true, then this probably shows that the military psychiatrist is incapable of conducting a successful interview and must rely on the TAT to help him make conversation.

If people respond in fantasy mode, the TAT may reveal unfulfilled needs only insofar as adequate symbols appear, but even so, this human phenomenon does not reveal personality; it only reveals what lies unexpressed, unfulfilled, or unresolved. The revelation of hidden, unfinished emotional states is not the revelation of personality; it is only the revelation of emotional disturbances. The act of trying to use the TAT to reveal personality shows a marked disrespect for the depth and intricacies of human personality.

The TAT is commonly being used as personality assessment tool though it really does not hold that power. It is being given more power than it can justify. The creators of the TAT, aside from claiming that the tool reveals unfulfilled emotional needs, also claim that it reveals blockades to the fulfillment of those needs. These two purposes are not personality assessment unless personality is understood as being equivalent to the expression and/or repression of unfulfilled emotional needs. I think very few outside of the archaic and primitive field of psychoanalysis would agree to such a narrow definition of personality.

One researcher working in the field of psychoanalysis claimed that the TAT reveals personality and unconscious drives (Wittenborn, 1951; 1950) because he understands Murray’s concept of needs and motives to be equivalent to Freud’s drive theory. There is some similarity between the philosophical concepts of needs and drives, but they are not one and the same. I think that this tendency for psychoanalysts to treat the TAT as a test of Freud’s drive theory and as a tool that reveals personality has created a long history of it being used for purposes beyond its power. Needs are not necessarily unconscious; they can be accessed by self-reflection, while drives are entirely unconscious and can never be verified by asking the test subject to reflect on whether the interpretation is correct. Some administers of the TAT seem to view patients as ‘resistant’ to treatment and in need of being ‘tricked’ into revealing information about themselves.

Scientists who conducted one the largest, most thorough meta-analyses of the past five decades of TAT studies have concluded:

Our literature review, then, indicates that, as usually administered, the Rorschach, TAT and human figure drawings are useful only in very limited circumstances. The same is true for many other projective techniques. … We have also found that even when the methods assess what they claim to measure, they tend to lack what psychologists call ‘incremental validity’: they rarely add much to information that can be obtained in other, more practical ways, such as by conducting interviews or administering objective personality tests. (Objective tests seek answers to relatively clear-cut questions, such as, “I frequently have thoughts of hurting myself—true or false?”) This shortcoming of projective tools makes the costs in money and time hard to justify (Lilienfeld, Wood, & Garb, 2001, pp. 86-87).

Why the TAT is Still Used Despite Lack of Evidence of Efficacy

            The TAT was originally meant for psychiatrists using psychoanalytic theory as the basis for the understanding of human nature. Since psychoanalysis is steadily dying and being replaced by kinder, gentler, far more effective methods of treating emotional disturbances, the continued use of the TAT reveals perhaps more about the general character of those who use the instrument—indeed about the enterprise of medical psychology itself—than what it reveals about those who are the targets of its claims. My own speculation is that it is being used a ‘fast and easy’ way to allegedly dig into the psyche without the clinician having to be burdened by the requirement of formulating penetrating questions and engaging in deeply meaningful conversation. Therapists who are unskilled at digging into the psyche will try to find tools and techniques to help them do their job better; thus, the popularity of the TAT in clinical psychology reveals that the field is generally filled with unskilled clinicians who can’t do their jobs without help from ‘magical devices’ such as the TAT. Humans have a tendency to create a ‘blind faith’ in things that they believe hold special powers. Clinicians are no different from the general public with their belief that certain objects hold special powers.

The Thematic Apperception Test was created during the early days of clinical psychology in a land where Freudian theory overwhelmingly dominated clinical thought. The common view of human nature out of with the TAT was created included the belief that humans are riddled with layers of resistances that need to be detected by ‘trained analysts’ and systematically broken down in order to convince people to ‘accept their true nature’ in order to better control their behavior. This primitive view of human nature and subsequent barbaric practice is still the modus operandi of psychoanalysis and behavioral psychology, seen most prolifically in the cognitive behavioral realm of clinical psychology, which ironically claims that that there is no such thing as ‘the unconscious’ yet cognitive behaviorists spend most of their time trying to detect unconscious ‘defenses’ and ‘hidden motivations’ in their clients. The endurance of this mistrustful, suspicious view of human nature may partly explain why the TAT is still commonly used even though the practice of psychoanalysis, especially the Freudian version, is nearly dead. Many psychologists and psychiatrists today still think of their patients as untrustworthy and resistant to accepting the truth about themselves, which justifies the use of tools that ‘trick’ respondents into revealing their ‘true nature’ by circumventing ‘defenses’. “When a substantial body of research demonstrates that old intuitions are wrong, it is time to adopt new ways of thinking” (Lilienfeld, Wood, & Garb, 2001, p. 87). As long as the TAT makes clinicians’ jobs easier, and as long as clinicians still believe the myth of psychoanalytic theory, the TAT will unfortunately continue to be used and misused for the alleged ‘benefit’ of patients.

Overall Summary

            In my opinion the power of the TAT lies strictly in its ability to reveal unfulfilled emotional needs, and this purpose is carried out effectively only insofar as the imagery contained in the TAT is sufficiently symbolic that it can represent to the test-taker the dynamics within his psyche. In other words, if the imagery is not meaningful to the test-taker, it fails to hold its symbolic value needed to represent the dynamics that are to be revealed. As for the creators’ claim that it reveals not only unfulfilled needs, but the blockades to their fulfillment, I have no opinion because I do not have any experience studying symbolic imagery for that purpose. My clinical experience is limited to analyzing the repetitive, uncontrollable thoughts, fantasies and behaviors of high-functioning adults, and I have found that these repetitions hold vast capacity for revealing deep unfulfilled emotional needs which I refer to as ‘longings’.

My own view of the TAT is that it may be useful in revealing unfulfilled longings in those who create stories out of the still images, but its power is limited to how meaningful the images are to those who are creating the stories, and how safe the environment feels for the story-tellers to reveal their object relations dynamics. I don’t think people can be tricked into revealing ‘deep dark secrets’ through these images; I think people have more control over what they reveal about themselves than many TAT administrators would like to believe.

Overall I think the TAT has its place in clinical psychology as long as it is not be used for a purpose beyond its innate power, but it is by far less effective than what can be accomplished through a phenomenological interview which focuses on the symbolic imagery that appears repetitively in the actual lives of the interviewees. This would include symbolic imagery that runs through the minds of the interviewees repetitively in fantasy and thought, and symbols that are revealed through ritualistic gestures, actions, movements, tendencies, and relationships with objects in various mediums. Internal content that people come up with entirely on their own, in their real lives, is more revealing of the psyche than what they come up with on-the-spot during a ‘test’ that involves dictated images. My opinion is supported by the conclusion reached by scientists who have reviewed all of the TAT studies: “Even when projective methods assess what they claim to measure, they rarely add much to information that can be obtained in other, more practical ways” (Lilienfeld, Wood, & Garb, 2001, p. 85). If the instrument truly reveals apperceptive knowledge, this implies that the test-takers themselves are the best verification for its claims, but if the instrument reveals purported unconscious material, no one can verify its accuracy. Test-takers themselves are not used to verify the apperceptive knowledge that the TAT claims to reveal. This mistrust of the test-takers seems to reveal more about the enterprise of clinical psychology than it does about those who take the test.



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