Everything we know or perceive is based on our own unique experience throughout life. What we go through, what we witness, and what we feel all combine to help us form assumptions that make sense of the world around us.
Everything we see elicits natural reactions from us that reveal our deepest motivations and concerns. Psychologists have known this for a long time and have created tests that help them understand people better.
One of these assessments is a psychological test known as the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT).
Look at the image below. What do you see?
Photo: “Job Tidings” by Carel Willink
Now that you have captured the image details, ask yourself the following questions about the image you just observed:
- What is the story behind the image?
- What does the woman do?
- What is the man doing?
- What is the overall impression of the image?
The idea is to create a story in your mind about what is happening in the picture. This should include deciding what event is happening, what led up to the event, and what the outcome of the story is.
Psychotherapist Emily Iniekio explains in detail how to pass the thematic apperception test in a TikTok video:
What is the thematic apperception test?
The Thematic Apperception Test (TAT) is a projective test developed by Henry A. Murray And Christiana D. Morgan at Harvard University in the 1930s. TAT is widely known as the image interpretation technique.
The test was created based on the theory that subjects’ responses in the stories they make up around the image provide insight into how they think and how they see the world from a from a social point of view.
One of Murray’s students, named Cecilia Roberts, told him that her son was mentally ill and was making up stories based on pictures he had seen in a magazine. She wanted the boy to undergo psychological evaluations to see if he had any personality disorders.
On Murray’s part, he was interested in finding a way to learn more about the “whole person”, but the more common methods did not meet his needs. Thus, the thematic apperception test was born.
The intention was to ask people to interpret ambiguous circumstances using their experiences, motivations and assumptions, conscious or subconscious. Murray thought the narrative aspect would reduce their defense mechanisms and reveal personal information.
How does the thematic apperception test work?
To perform the test, participants are given 32 picture cards and are asked to create their own dramatic story out of the pictures by asking themselves the questions mentioned previously.
The examiner is expected to avoid intervening or answering questions about the images, but may question the subject on any questions they have not answered.
The cards contain a variety of images: men, women or both. Some are adults, some are children, while a few show no humans. The blank cards are meant to inspire the participant to create their own scene and then a story about the image they have created.
Of the 32 cards available, Murray recommended using 20, but most reviewers use 8-12. Card themes include success and failure, competition and jealousy, relationships, sexuality and aggression.
TikToker Savvas Trichas shares more images from the test:
What do the answers to the Thematic Apperception Test mean?
There are no right or wrong answers in the TAT. It’s simply meant to evoke an involuntary peek into a person’s subconscious. Therefore, due to the uniqueness of each individual answer, it is subjective.
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However, there are tendencies and patterns that can help identify certain psychological traits.
The scoring system examines 28 needs and 20 environmental influences (presses), all rated from 1 to 5 based on intensity, duration, frequency, and relevance to the plot of the story.
The thematic apperception test is not frequently used in a clinical setting, but it has helped develop other formal scoring systems like the Manual of Defense Mechanisms, Social Cognition and Object Relations Scale (SCOR)and the Personal Problem Solving System: Revised (PPSS-R).
TAT is used as a tool in many areas of psychology such as fantasies, mate selection, dreams, exams to assess crime suspects, and personality tests to identify good candidates for stressful jobs. You can try it yourself here.
Although it may not provide all the answers to human psychology, the thematic apperception test will continue to be an integrated tool in the quest to understand people.
NyRee Ausler is a writer from Seattle, Washington, and author of seven books. It covers lifestyle, entertainment and news, as well as workplace navigation and social issues.