Children's Apperception Test

views updated Jun 11 2018

Children's Apperception Test


The Children's Apperception Test (CAT) is a projective personality test used to assess individual variations in children's responses to standardized stimuli presented in the form of pictures of animals (CAT-A) or humans (CAT-H) in common social situations. In a supplement to the CATthe CAT-Sthe stimuli include pictures of children in common family situations such as prolonged illnesses, births, deaths, and separations from parental figures.


The CAT is used to assess personality, level of maturity, and, often, psychological health. The theory is that a child's responses to a series of drawings of animals or humans in familiar situations are likely to reveal significant aspects of a child's personality. Some of these dimensions of personality include level of reality testing and judgment, control and regulation of drives, defenses, conflicts, and level of autonomy.


The CAT, developed by psychiatrist and psychologist Leopold Bellak and Sonya Sorel Bellak and first published in 1949, is based on the picture-story test called the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT). The TAT, created by psychologist Henry A. Murray for children (ten years old and older) as well as adults, uses a standard series of 31 picture cards in assessing perception of interpersonal relationships. The cards, which portray humans in a variety of common situations, are used to stimulate stories or descriptions (orally or in writing) about relationships or social situations and can help identify dominant drives, emotions, sentiments, conflicts and complexes. The examiner summarizes and interprets the stories in light of certain common psychological themes.

In creating the original CAT, animal figures were used instead of the human figures depicted in the TAT because it was assumed that children from three to ten years of age would identify more easily with drawings of animals. The original CAT consisted of ten cards depicting animal (CAT-A) figures in human social settings. The Bellaks later developed the CAT-H, which included human figures, for use in children who, for a variety of reasons, identified more closely with human rather than animal figures. A supplement to the CAT (the CAT-S), which included pictures of children in common family situations, was created to elicit specific rather than universal responses.

Like the TAT and the Rorschach inkblot test, the CAT is a type of personality assessment instrument known as a projective test. The term projective refers to a concept originated by Sigmund Freud. In Freud's theory, unconscious motives control much of human behavior. Projection is a psychological mechanism by which a person unconsciously projects inner feelings onto the external world, then imagines those feelings are being expressed by the external world toward him or herself.

As opposed to cognitive tests, which use intellectual and logical problems to measure what an individual knows about the world, projective assessments such as the CAT are designed to be open-ended and to encourage free expression of thoughts and feelings, thereby revealing how an individual thinks and feels.


The CAT, which takes 2045 minutes to administer, is conducted by a trained professionalpsychiatrist, psychologist, social worker, teacher or specially trained pediatricianin a clinical, research, or educational setting. The test may be used directly in therapy or as a play technique in other settings.

After carefully establishing rapport with the child, the examiner shows the child one card after another in a particular sequence (although fewer than ten cards may be used at the examiner's discretion) and encourages the child to tell a storywith a beginning, middle, and endabout the characters. The examiner may ask the child to describe, for example, what led up to the scene depicted, the emotions of the characters, and what might happen in the future.


In a projective test such as the CAT, there is no right or wrong answer. Thus there is no numerical score or scale for the test. The test administrator records the essence of each of the stories told and indicates the presence or absence of certain thematic elements on the form provided. As in the TAT, each story is carefully analyzed to uncover the child's underlying needs, conflicts, emotions, attitudes, and response patterns. The CAT's creators suggest a series of ten variables to consider when interpreting the results. These variables include the story's major theme, the major character's needs, drives, anxieties, conflicts, fears, and the child's conception of the external world.

Reliability and validity

Although responses in projective tests are believed to reflect personality characteristics, many experts have called into question the reliability, validity, and hence, usefulness of these tests as diagnostic techniques.

The CAT, as well as other projective measures, has been criticized for its lack of a standardized method of administration as well as the lack of standard norms for interpretation. Studies of the interactions between examiners and test subjects have found, for example, that the race, gender, and social class of both participants influence the stories that are told as well as the way the stories are interpreted by the examiner.

Suggested uses

The CAT, which is designed for use in clinical, educational, and research settings, provides the examiner with a source of data, based on the child's perceptions and imagination, for use in better understanding the child's current needs, motives, emotions, and conflicts, both conscious and unconscious. Its use in clinical assessment is generally part of a larger battery of tests and interview data.

Parental concerns

Although it can provide useful information about a child's personality, the CAT, as a projective measure, relies heavily on the interpretations of the test administrator and is often referred to as an assessment tool rather than a test.

In addition to questioning the general reliability and validity of all projective tests, some experts maintain that cultural and language differences among children tested may affect CAT test performance and may produce inaccurate test results.

Parents need to keep in mind that psychological tests such as the CAT, which should be administered only by well-trained professionals, are only one element of a child's psychological assessment. These tools should never be used as the sole basis for a diagnosis. A detailed review of psychological, medical, educational, or other relevant history are required to lay the foundation for interpreting the results of any psychological measurement.


Apperception The process of understanding through linkage with previous experience.

Projective test A type of psychological test that assesses a person's thinking patterns, observational ability, feelings, and attitudes on the basis of responses to ambiguous test materials. Projective tests are often used to evaluate patients with personality disorders.

Rorschach test A well-known projective test in which subjects are asked to describe a series of black or colored inkblots. The inkblots allow the patient to project his or her interpretations, which can be used to diagnose particular disorders. Also known as the Rorschach Psychodiagnostic Test.



McCoy, Dorothy. The Ultimate Guide to Personality Tests. Inglewood, CA: Champion Press, 2005.

Paul, Annie Murphy. The Cult of Personality: How Personality Tests Are Leading Us to Miseducate Our Children, Mismanage Our Companies, and Misunderstand Ourselves. Riverside, NJ: Simon & Schuster, 2004.


Camara, W. J., et al. "Psychological test usage: implications in professional psychology." Professional Psychology: Research and Practice 31 (2000): 14154.

Kamphaus, R. W., et al. "Current trends in psychological testing of children." Professional Psychology: Research and Practice 31 (2000): 15564.


American Psychological Association Committee on Psychological Tests and Assessments. 750 First St., NE, Washington, DC 200024242. Web site: <>.

ERIC Clearinghouse on Assessment and Evaluation. O'Boyle Hall, Department of Education, Catholic University of America, Washington, DC 20064. Web site: <>.

Genevieve Slomski, Ph.D.

Children's Apperception Test

views updated May 29 2018

Children's Apperception Test


The Children's Apperception Test, often abbreviated as CAT, is an individually administered projective personality test appropriate for children aged three to 10 years.


The CAT is intended to measure the personality traits, attitudes, and psychodynamic processes evident in prepubertal children. By presenting a series of pictures and asking a child to describe the situations and make up stories about the people or animals in the pictures, an examiner can elicit this information about the child.

The CAT was originally developed to assess psychosexual conflicts related to certain stages of a child's development. Examples of these conflicts include relationship issues, sibling rivalry, and aggression. Today, the CAT is more often used as an assessment technique in clinical evaluation. Clinical diagnoses can be based in part on the Children's Apperception Test and other projective techniques.


A psychologist or other professional person who is administering the CAT must be trained in its usage and interpretation, and be familiar with the psychological theories underlying the pictures. Because of the subjective nature of interpreting and analyzing CAT results, caution should be used in drawing conclusions from the test results. Most clinical psychologists recommend using the CAT in conjunction with other psychological tests designed for children.

The CAT is frequently criticized for its lack of objective scoring, its reliance on the scorer's own scoring method and bias, and the lack of accepted evidence for its reliability (consistency of results) and validity (effectiveness in measuring what it was designed to measure). For example, no clear evidence exists that the test measures needs, conflicts, or other processes related to human motivations in a valid and reliable way.

Older children between the ages of seven and 10 years may feel that the animal pictures in the original version of the CAT are too childish for them. They may respond better to the pictures of human beings available in the Children's Apperception Test-Human Figures (CAT-H), a version of the CAT in which human beings replace animals in the pictures.


The Children's Apperception Test was developed in 1949 by Leopold Bellak and Sonya Sorel Bellak. It was an offshoot of the widely used Thematic Apperception Test (TAT), which was based on Henry Murray's need-based theory of personality. Bellak and Bellak developed the CAT because they saw a need for an apperception test specifically designed for children. The most recent revision of the CAT was published in 1993.

The original CAT featured ten pictures of animals in such human social contexts as playing games or sleeping in a bed. Today, this version is known as the CAT or the CAT-A (for animal). Animals were chosen for the pictures because it was believed that young children relate better to animals than humans. Each picture is presented by a test administrator in the form of a card. The test is always administered to an individual child; it should never be given in group form. The test is not timed but normally takes 2030 minutes. It should be given in a quiet room in which the administrator and the child will not be disturbed by other people or activities.

The second version of the CAT, the CAT-H, was developed in 1965 by Bellak and Bellak. The CAT-H includes ten pictures of human beings in the same situations as the animals in the original CAT. The CAT-H was designed for the same age group as the CAT-A but appeals especially to children aged seven to 10, who may prefer pictures of humans to pictures of animals.

The pictures on the CAT were chosen to draw out children's fantasies and encourage storytelling. Descriptions of the ten pictures are as follows: baby chicks seated around a table with an adult chicken appearing in the background; a large bear and a baby bear playing tug-of-war; a lion sitting on a throne being watched by a mouse through a peephole; a mother kangaroo with a joey (baby kangaroo) in her pouch and an older joey beside her; two baby bears sleeping on a small bed in front of a larger bed containing two bulges; a cave in which two large bears are lying down next to a baby bear; a ferocious tiger leaping toward a monkey who is trying to climb a tree; two adult monkeys sitting on a sofa while another adult monkey talks to a baby monkey; a rabbit sitting on a child's bed viewed through a doorway; and a puppy being spanked by an adult dog in front of a bathroom. The cards in the human version substitute human adults and children for the animals but the situations are the same. Gender identity, however, is more ambiguous in the animal pictures than in the human ones. The ambiguity of gender can allow for children to relate to all the child animals in the pictures rather than just the human beings of their own sex.

The pictures are meant to encourage the children to tell stories related to competition, illness, injuries, body image, family life, and school situations. The CAT test manual suggests that the administrator should consider the following variables when analyzing a child's story about a particular card: the protagonist (main character) of the story; the primary needs of the protagonist; and the relationship of the main character to his or her personal environment. The pictures also draw out a child's anxieties, fears, and psychological defenses.

One theoretical basis for the CAT and other apperception tests is Murray's theory of personality. Murray is credited with clarifying the concept of human needs. He believed that a person's needs affect the way in which he or she interacts with the environment. The pictures on the CAT often address the manner in which individuals interact with their environment in terms of need fulfillment. Murray developed the Thematic Apperception Test, or TAT, in order to assess the relative strength of a person's needs. The needs that Murray particularly emphasized include the need for achievement and the need for recognition.

Because the primary content of the CAT consists of pictures, it is widely used in countries outside the United States.


Scoring of the Children's Apperception Test is not based on objective scales; it must be performed by a trained test administrator or scorer. The scorer's interpretation should take into account the following variables: the story's primary theme; the story's hero or heroine; the needs or drives of the hero or heroine; the environment in which the story takes place; the child's perception of the figures in the picture; the main conflicts in the story; the anxieties and defenses expressed in the story; the function of the child's superego; and the integration of the child's ego.

Consider, for example, the card in which a ferocious tiger leaps toward a monkey who is trying to climb a tree. A child may talk about his or her fears of aggression or punishment. The monkey may be described as a hero escaping punishment from the evil tiger. This story line may represent the child's perceived need to escape punishment from an angry parent or a bully. Conversely, a child may perceive the picture in a relatively harmless way, perhaps seeing the monkey and tiger playing an innocent game.

A projective test like the CAT allows for a wide variety of acceptable responses. There is no "incorrect" response to the pictures. The scorer is responsible for interpreting the child's responses in a coherent way in order to make the test useful as a clinical assessment technique. It is recommended practice for the administrator to obtain the child's personal and medical history before giving the CAT, in order to provide a context for what might otherwise appear to be abnormal responses. For example, it would be normal under the circumstances for a child whose pet has just died to tell stories that include themes of grief or loss even though most children would not respond to the cards in that way.

A person scoring the CAT has considerable flexibility in interpretation. He or she can use the analysis of a child's responses to support a psychological diagnosis , provide a basis for a clinical evaluation, or gain insight into the child's internal psychological structure.

See also Rorschach technique



Groth-Marnat, Gary. Handbook of Psychological Assessment. 3rd edition. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1997.

Kline, Paul. The Handbook of Psychological Testing. New York: Routledge, 1999.

Maddox, Taddy. Tests. Austin, TX: Pro-ed, 1997.

Suzuki, Lisa A., Joseph G. Ponterotto, and Paul J. Meller. Handbook of Multicultural Assessment. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001.

Ali Fahmy, Ph.D.

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Childrens Apperception Test

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