Thematic Apperception Test (TAT)

Thematic Apperception Tests (TAT)Although rarely used by career counselors and practitioners, traditional projective techniques are experiencing a renaissance because they provide a long-tested method of assessing stories and narratives, which are becoming the focus of career and narrative practitioners. These approaches, long overshadowed by quantitative methods, are providing new ground for exploration and explanation of individuals’ career trajectories and concerns.

The Thematic Apperception test (TAT) is one such established projective technique. The TAT was initially developed by Christiana Morgan and Henry Murray in 1935 as a performance measure of personality. The TAT uses a projective narrative technique to elicit stories from individuals and then provides practitioners with a wide variety of interpretive methods. The test uses ambiguous stimuli in the form of pictures of drawings or photographs to assist people in producing stories. Numerous scoring systems have been developed to measure specific variables of interest to researchers. The most famous scoring system developed by Murray in 1943 assesses for the needs of achievement, affiliation, and power. Research indicates that these TAT-based motive measures provide a valid prediction of real-world behaviors and life outcomes. Though various systematic scoring models have been developed and validated, the current interest of career counselors and practitioners focuses upon the narrative and thematic interpretation of the TAT stories.

Narratives or stories are currently viewed as the main vehicle individuals use to express who they are and how they see the world. Narratives give us insight into the intentional actions of a person and are the platform individuals use to translate events and impose structure on their experiences. Individuals often repeat story lines in multiple variations, and a careful listener or reader will be able to recognize a unity and consistency revealed across each of an individual’s narratives. Narratives in this context are not important as historical truth, but because they express the way in which people explain their experiences and indicate how they may cope with experiences. Narratives commonly become an extension of the person or reflect a picture of how the person would like to be. Interpretation of the TAT, therefore, has to be approached with a narrative sensitivity that understands the tendency of narratives to represent an extension of the person. This reflection of the individual into the narrative also can be referred to as projection.

Projective narratives like the TAT often allow access to an individual’s personality in a way that direct questionnaires and interviews cannot. When individuals engage in telling stories about the self or others, subconscious material often slips out even when the individual does not want it to. Individuals taking the TAT frequently project onto the pictures their own anxieties, motives, and desires in the narratives that they produce. This unconscious projection is facilitated through the external focus of the TAT session. The TAT pictures and the instructions associated with the pictures are focused externally and tend to draw the attention of the individual away from personal concerns to focus on the creative task of developing a story. The externality of the TAT fosters narrative responses that are projective in nature and provides the context for their interpretation.

The TAT pictures serve as the primary context to produce these narratives. Different TAT cards have been shown to result in or pull out consistent themes. Within the traditional 16 TAT cards, 3 cards, including (1) boy with violin, (2) young woman with books, (3) older man and younger man, tend to foster stories related to occupation, aspirations, and family dynamics. Stories written in response to these cards tend to produce themes that influence career concerns and trajectory. The specific techniques and instructions of the TAT administration help to facilitate expression of these individual narratives.

In the administration of the TAT, individuals are usually instructed to write or orally share a story about each picture, being told to answer these general questions: What is happening in the picture? What happened before? How are people in the picture feeling? What are they thinking? How does everything turn out at the end? Written responses tend to produce stories that are more autobiographical in nature and provide a more accurate written record that can be reviewed later by the practitioner and respondent. The TAT picture is held up for 10 seconds, and then the individual is given 5 minutes to write a story for the picture before the next picture is held up. The process is repeated until all cards have been reviewed, and then the responses are collected. Every response to a TAT picture, therefore, produces a brief and complete narrative that can prove useful to career counselors.

A case study may be demonstrative of the current efforts and use of the TAT for identifying narrative themes that influence career. The individual responded to the three TAT cards reviewed above with the following stories. To the first card, of the boy with a violin, the individual wrote that the child hated practicing his instrument and wished to be outside with friends playing baseball. The child, however, remained inside to practice but always hated playing the instrument. To the card showing a young woman with books, the story was about the girl and her love of school but how she was feeling torn between going to college and staying home on the family farm. The girl eventually chooses to stay home and works on the farm. The story of the third card indicated that the picture was of a father and his son. The father wanted the son to take over the family shoe store, while the son wanted to go to college to pursue law. The son gives in to the father’s wishes but ends up feeling miserable. A consistent theme of family conflict over career expectations is found in all three stories. The practitioner would want to highlight, verify, and investigate this theme and others with the client. The TAT and other projective measures, therefore, can provide the opportunity to express and explore otherwise unspoken narratives that are active in an individual’s life and facilitate more effective career counseling.

See also :


  1. Aronow, E., Weiss, K. A. and Reznikoff, M. 2001. A Practical Guide to the Thematic Apperception Test. Philadelphia, PA: Brunner-Routledge.
  2. Morgan, C. D. and Murray, H. A. 1935. “A Method for Investigating Fantasies: The Thematic Apperception Test.” Archives of Neurology and Psychiatry 34:289-306.
  3. Murray, H. A. 1943. Thematic Apperception Test Manual. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  4. Rehfuss, M. C. 2004. “The Effect of Self-directedness on the Academic Success of Medical Students.” PhD dissertation, Department of Adult Counseling, Health and Vocational Education, Kent State University, Kent, OH.
  5. Smith, C. P., ed. 1992. Motivation and Personality: Handbook of Thematic Content Analysis. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  6. Teglasi, H. 2001. Essentials of TAT and Other Storytelling Techniques Assessment. New York: Wiley & Sons.