Children’s Apperception Test

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Children’s Apperception Test








The Children’s Apperception Test, often abbreviated as CAT, is an individually administered projective personality test appropriate for children aged 3–10 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 psy-chosexual 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 CAT 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 7 and 10 years old 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 CAT was developed in 1949 by Leopold Bel-lak 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 20–30 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


Apperception —The process of understanding through linkage with previous experience. The term was coined by one of the authors of the TAT to underscore the fact that people don’t “perceive” the story cards in a vacuum; rather, they construct their stories on the basis of past experiences as well as present personality traits.

Defense —An unconscious mental process that protects the conscious mind from unacceptable or painful thoughts, impulses, or desires. Examples of defenses include denial, rationalization, projection, and repression. Some defenses are considered to represent lower levels of maturation than others; thus identifying a child’s defenses may be helpful in evaluating his or her level of psychological maturity.

Ego —In Freudian psychology, the conscious, rational part of the mind that experiences and reacts to the outside world.

Projective test —A psychological test in which the test taker responds to or provides ambiguous, abstract, or unstructured stimuli, often in the form of pictures or drawings.

Psychodynamic —Referring to the motivational forces, unconscious as well as conscious, that form human attitudes and behavior.

Psychosexual conflicts —In Freudian categories, internal conflicts related to problems at a particular stage of childhood development. Freud associated each developmental stage with a particular part of the human body, such as the mouth or the phallus.

Reliability —The ability of a test to yield consistent, repeatable results.

Sibling rivalry —Competition among brothers and sisters in a nuclear family. It is considered to be an important influence in shaping the personalities of children who grow up in middle-class Western societies but less relevant in traditional African and Asian cultures.

Superego —According to Freud, the part of the mind that represents traditional parental and societal values. The superego is the source of guilt feelings.

Validity —The ability of a test to measure accurately what it claims to measure.

CAT-A but appeals especially to children aged 7–10, 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 story telling. 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 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 CAT 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’ssuperego; and the integration of the child’sego.

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’spersonal 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 alsoRorschach 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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Children’s Apperception Test

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