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Dredging and Projecting the Depths of Personality: The Thematic Apperception Test and the Narratives of the Unconscious

  • Jason Miller (a1)

The Thematic Apperception Test (TAT) was a projective psychological test created by Harvard psychologist Henry A. Murray and his lover Christina Morgan in the 1930s. The test entered the nascent intelligence service of the United States (the OSS) during the Second World War due to its celebrated reputation for revealing the deepest aspects of an individual's unconscious. It subsequently spread as a scientifically objective research tool capable not only of dredging the unconscious depths, but also of determining the best candidate for a management position, the psychological complexes of human nature, and the unique characteristics of a culture. Two suppositions underlie the utility of the test. One is the power of narrative. The test entails a calculated abuse of the subjects tested, based on their inability to interpret their own narrative. The form of the test requires that a subject fail to decipher the coded, unconscious meaning their narrative reveals. Murray believed the interpretation of a subject's narrative and the projection contained therein depended exclusively on the psychologist. This view of interpretation stems from the seemingly more reasonable belief of nineteenth-century Romantic thinkers that a literary text serves as a proxy for an author's deepest self. The TAT also supposes that there is something beyond consciousness closely resembling a psychoanalytic unconscious, which also has clear precedents in nineteenth-century German thought. Murray's views on literary interpretation, his view of psychology as well as the continuing prevalence of the TAT, signals a nineteenth-century concept of self that insists “on relations of depth and surface, inner and outer life” (Galison 2007, 277). It is clear the hermeneutic practice of Freud's psychoanalysis, amplified in Jung, drew on literary conceptions of the unconscious wider than those of nineteenth-century psychology.

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Science in Context
  • ISSN: 0269-8897
  • EISSN: 1474-0664
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