Home DH-Debate
5a. The Ten Rorchach Cards
7. Lüscher's Color Personality Test

6. TAT and Test of Ambition Level

Murray and Morgan's TAT test

Henry A. Murray and Christina D. Morgan developed in 1935 a completely new type of psychological test, which they called "Thematic Appreciation Test" (TAT). The test consists in showing the test person a series of images and ask him or her to tell a little story about each one.

Unlike the ink blots the TAT pictures are real pictures, which imagine something.

Henry Murray 1893-1988 Christiana Morgan 1897-1967
Left: Henry Murray 1893-1988.
Right: Christiana Morgan 1897-1967.

The images can be photos or drawings, sometimes slightly indistinct to leave something to the test subject's imagination.

There are 31 images; each test person will be shown 20 selected according to the person's age and gender. Based on the depicted persons on the card the test subject's is asked to compose a little story about each picture. He will have maybe five minutes for each story.

The test aims to uncover the test taker's personality and hidden unconscious motives. It will also test the person's ability of structuring a story with an introduction, a plot and a completion.

During the course of the test the psychologist can ask questions such as: "What has happened?"; "What events occurred prior to this?". "What will happen to him (the main character) now?" or "What will happen later?".

TAT interview
TAT interview.

The personality that the test person gives the main character of the history will be interpreted as his own. The other persons will typically be interpreted as family or colleagues, and the relationship between the characters in the story will be considered as the test subject's typical relations to others.

Murray himself remarked about his test subjects: "Usually he enters, talks about a few pictures and then leaves without the least recognition that he has supplied the experimenter with a flurocendent screen for understanding of his emotional skeleton." He insisted that each test participant "should certainly not be told about the real purpose of the test", but be informed of "a plausible but fictitious purpose", usually to measure creativity or intelligence."(The Cult of - page 89)

En illustration i Womans Home Companion September 1931 af Pruet Carter for en historie af Magaret Deland A TAT card character after novel magazine illustration
Left: A illustration in Womans Home Companion September 1931 by Pruet Carter for a story by Magaret Deland.
Right: A TAT card made after a short story magazine illustration.

Murray and Morgan picked up much of their inspiration from illustrations in contemporary short story magazines. At that time, copyrights were not taken very seriously.

As you can see, it can be quite difficult to keep up optimism, but remember that short stories in this kind of magazines have always happy end.

Again it is crucial to realize that it is not a creativity test. TAT tests have been designed to dig out things from our personality that we hardly even know that we have. Companies have no desire to hire a new H. C. Andersen or Charles Dickens. If the applicant mistakenly believes that it is a creativity test and just runs off the tangent, it can go badly wrong.

A card can for example show a boy, who plays the violin. Applicants are asked to make a short story about this theme.

A TAT card - a sort of pumpkin man with a big club A boy  plays the violin
Left: A TAT card - a sort of pumpkin man with a big club.
Right: A boy plays the violin.

Answers may, among other things, show whether the applicant is ambitious or not.

A non ambitious candidate's reply might be worded: "The boy found an old violin in the attic and liked making a little fun with it. It sounded awful, the cat rushed out of the house, when he began; neighbours roared on the wall. One day the boy was outside playing with his friends, his mother threw the old useless violin in the rubbish bin, and then the house again became peaceful."

However an ambitious candidate's answer can read: "From the time he was quite small, the boy was very musical. Even before he could speak, he laughed enthusiastically, whenever he heard music and sat rocking with the rhythm. When he became a little bigger, his grandfather bought a violin to him. He practiced diligently for many hours each day. In an early age he was already very talented and was admitted to a famous music conservatory."

So the point is that it must be a success story. The boy or animal, or whatever is on card, must early set a great goal. Through hardship and suffering they must strive towards this goal, until they finally succeed, and they become rich or famous or both.

A  photo of the famous violinist Menuhin as a boy The TAT  picture with the boy who views a violin
Left: A photo of the famous violinist Menuhin as a boy.
Right: The TAT picture with the boy, who views a violin.

A TAT card depicts a kind of pumpkin man with a big club. Whether you say it is kind of pumpkin-man or not, it will be in the cards that this is a father figure, and if one interprets the club as a big penis, he will have indicated a problematic relationship to his father and thereby to authorities and managers in general. It will be a disqualifying factor in relation to a career in a large organization.

Some general guidelines on TAT tests:

All talk about violence should be excluded from the story.

The personality you give the main character, may be useful in relation to the job in question, but it must also be reasonable close to your real personality, as it is very difficult, if not impossible, to fake a totally different personality. If it is an accounting position, it may be a particular type, and if it is an executive position, you must be energetic and persistent, and so on.

A TAT image shows a woman viewed from behind by an older woman A TAT  picture with a seemingly lifeless naked woman in a bed
Left: A TAT image shows a woman viewed from behind by an older woman.
Right:A TAT picture with a seemingly lifeless naked woman in a bed. A fuly dressed man takes to his head.

It can be tough - but we must try to tell a positive story with good relations between the main characters and happy end. A TAT picture, frequently made public as an example, shows a woman who are viewed from behind by an older woman. It can be interpreted as a woman, who has taken a big decision, her mother looks worried.

Another picture shows a man who takes to his head; in the background is a seemingly lifeless naked woman on a bed. It can be his beloved wife, who burns with fever, the husbond is concerned, because the doctor does not come as promised.

The psychologist wil encourage you to compose a kind of fiction. But we must definately warn you against making up a story that the man has just raped and strangled the woman, and now he takes to his head thinking, what have I done? Such a story can have very severe consequences for the test subject.

The personal relations between the characters, who are shown in the picture must be good.

A TAT Picture - inspired by the short story magazines of the interwar period A TAT Picture - also inspired by the illustrations in the short story magazines of the interwar period
Left: A TAT Picture - inspired by the short story magazines of the interwar period.
Right: A TAT Picture - also inspired by the illustrations in the short story magazines of the interwar period.

If it does not seem possible to make such a story, the less good relations must be temporary.

It should be a success story with happy end.

Avoid controversial topics like religion and politics.

Show a positive attitude to the test and do not criticize it or come up with witty remarks. Psychologists have no humor, when it comes to their tests.

McClelland's Ambition Level Test

The American psychologist, McClelland argued that humans have a fundamental need to accomplish something, big achievements, great feats and heroic deeds. In the same way as we need food, water and shelter, we also need to perform achievements.

A typical TAT card - is he placed in a corner for punishment or does he dream about his future's success
A typical TAT card - is he placed in a corner for punishment or does he dream about his future's success?

He showed that there was a huge difference in the economic growth of society for different periods in history. In certain periods it was like development took a tiger leap forward. For example England in the reign of Elizabeth 1. saw such a marked growth, which only partly could be attributed to the new sea routes that have been discovered.

David McClelland studied the literature in the years up to major booms. He found that 40 to 50 years before a socio-economic tiger leap the literature contained many success stories. People dreamed really about to push the limits, to find new countries, to create new things, to perform achievements and become famous. The psychologist concluded that when Francis Drake and the other great explorers were children, their parents had been very concerned with achievements, and this facination they had communicated down to their children.

Therefore, he believed that the economic boom in his time was due to that half a century ago children and adults dreamed about success.

David McClelland 1917 - 1998
David McClelland 1917 - 1998.

The children's books of that time contained many success stories. For example, Tolkien's Bilbo Baggins traveled voluntarily out on a long and dangerous journey to search for treasures, and finally he really managed to find them.

Therefore, in order to ensure the future success for the society and the individual companies, it is important to assign such persons as new corporate employees, who have the greatest desire for achievements, who really want to accomplish something, to make a difference and get recognition for it.

To this end, McClelland developed a TAT-like test, an ambition level test, which he called "nACH" test. Later on the test has been extended to also include need for power (nPOW) and need for affiliation (nAFF).

Following McClelland a good manager must have a need for power. The idea of management is that the manager must realize his plans through his subordinates’ actions, and to make this happen he needs power. Persons with too low desire for power may miss the self-confidence, which is necessary to organize and direct subordinates’ activities efficiently. McClelland separates between "personalized power" and “socialized power".

Personal power
Manager with personal power.

Persons with high need for personalized power may have few inhibitions and little self control. They may have a tendency to be rude and they can exercise power impulsively. They are often characterized by excessive use of alcohol, connected to sexual harassments, and they are often collecting symbols of power (e.g., big offices, large desks, impressive cars). When they give advice or support, it is with strategic intent to further bolster their own status.

They demand personal loyalty from their subordinates rather than loyality to the organization. When the leader leaves office there is likely to occur breakdown of team morale and order.

Need for socialized power however is associated with effective leadership. Such managers use their power in socially positive ways that benefit others and the organization rather than contributing to the leader's status and personal gain. They are more hesitant to use power in manipulative ways, less narcissistic and defensive, they accumulate fewer symbols of power and status, have a longer time perspective, and are more willing to receive advice. They know that power must be distributed and shared, and that everyone must have a sense of influence over own jobs.

Affiliation
Affiliation between managers.

McClelland third factor is affiliation that is the ability to establish and maintain close and friendly relationships and take part in pleasant social activities. Greatly affiliated persons get great satisfaction from being liked and accepted by others. McClelland thinks that a good manager must have enough motivation and thus energy to keep close personal relations with peers and subordinates and maintain networking and public relations. However a manager cannot always make popular decisions that make everybody happy, therefore regarding affiliation a good manager must be somewhat in between high and low in affiliation.

A person with low score in in affiliation tends to be a loner, who feels uncomfortable by socializing with others except for a few close friends.

Mcclealands test is designed to find the the candidates best suited as managers. Its method is very similar to TAT. The test person is presented for four to six pictures, photos, that show some people, who are busy to perform some tasks. An image can for example represent two men working at a machine.

The test person sees each image about twenty seconds. He will then be then asked to tell a story about the picture.

This may be a nAch picture - What will she do now? - tell a story
This may be a nAch picture - What will she do now? - tell a story.

In the same way as in the TAT, the story should go on with the questions: "What happened?"; "What events occurred prior to this?"; "What will happen to him (the main character) now?"; "What will happen later?"

Again it is crucial to face that it is not a creativity test, and it is not an intelligence test. This is a test to show whether the applicant in his personality is suited to be a manager.

A reply that characterizes a high level of ambition will be recognized by that the main character set up himself an appropriate target - not too high and not too low. He makes a plan that reaches into the future, with the intent to achieve this goal.

The ambitious candidate sets up a realistic goal, which it is possible to achieve, if he is making an effort.

A candidate, who sets up an idealistic high-flying target, will have revealed himself as not ambitious, he is only seeking an excuse for the fiasco, which he unconsciously expects.

A candidate, who sets up very easy and reachable objectives, will have revealed that his fear of failure overshadows his ambitions.

Test responses that are stories about attaining challenging goals, setting new records, successful completion of difficult tasks, and doing something not done before, will all score on achievement.

This may be a nAch picture - What happened? - Write a story
This may be a nAch picture - What happened? - Write a story.

According to theory, an answer that reveals a low level of ambition may be characterized by that the main character gives in to pressure, he tries to avoid responsibility and thus fails in his efforts to achieve his goals.

To qualify as a manager in a large organization you must have a strong need for power, but however a moderate need of achievement and affiliation. To qualify as a manager in smaller organizations you must have strong need for power, a moderate need for achievement and a low need for affiliation.

Stories that are about influencing others, defeating an opponent or competitor, winning an argumentation, or attaining a position of greater authority will all reflect need for power.

Stories about eternal friendship, everlasting love, establishing or restoring close and friendly relationships, joining groups, participating in pleasant social activities, and enjoying shared activities with family or friends will score on affiliation.

Ricard Atkinson moderated McClelland ideas. He showed that we all balance our aspirations with our fear of failure. If we want to put a new motherboard in your computer or build a new carport, we will consider in advance, whether we have the right knowledge, the right tools and the right materials. Possibly, we may decide to abandon the project or leave it to a professional.

We can only fear that a really ambitious person, who burns for his cause, will have a difficult life in today's huge business organizations. He may easily be labeled as arguer and troublemaker. In the large international companies it is important for career to look upward in the organization and try to spy out, what kinds of solutions the top executives at heart prefer. When you decide on these options, you will get a reputation for leadership qualities and great judgement.
On Department of Psychology University of Tennessee can be found a discussion about the origin of Murray og Morgan's TAT pictures.

On Deparmento de Personalida Universidad de Salamanca can be found an "Objective administration and scoring for the Tematic Apperception Test (TAT)"

On The highlights can be found examples of reports of TAT stories and verbal descriptions of the pictures.

At Boston University, Harvard, can be found a very informative power point presentation, "Achievement Motivation" - www.psychology.ccsu.edu/engwall/Achievement%20Motivation.ppt - (copy to browser).

Gps writes on "Great Plains Sceptic": The Thematic Apperception Test – Science or Pseudoscience?

Literature: "The Cult of Personality Testing" by Annie Murphy Paul. "Free Press" New York 2004.

This article is a contribution to the debate on personality tests and Dalum Hjallese Debate Club assumes no liability for a use of the article in real life.
To top of article

20140429
Passed W3C Validation