Steven Heller | Essays

The Apperception Test That Sealed My Fate

When baby boomers like us were reaching early pubescence in the 1960s, cognitive psychologists were all the rage for a lot of our parents. Their job was to determine if the children of the “greatest generation” had any personality defects that would be harmful to their participation in the postwar American dream. Armed with batteries of tests to determine mental acuity and cognitive ability of young boomers, I had at least five psychologists working on evaluative studies over three days to determine if behavioral reconditioning therapy were necessary. Many tests were visual triggers that prompted conscious and subconscious behavioral responses and one such, the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT), changed the course of my life.
Apperception is the assimilation of a present experience based on past experiences. It is the process of drawing a relationship between new stimuli coming in from the senses and information stored in the mind through past perceptions. ... Apperception is conscious, it is deliberate.
According to the online Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders the TAT (developed during the 1930s by Henry A. Murray and Christiana D. Morgan at Harvard University) “is a projective measure intended to evaluate a person’s patterns of thought, attitudes, observational capacity, and emotional responses to ambiguous test materials.” These “ambiguous materials” involve a set of 8-by-10 cards that portray men, women, children—young and old— rendered in black-and-white crayon or charcoal of random settings and menacing situations. Unlike a Rorschach test, each realistic TAT image was seeded with deliberately matter-of-fact details designed to evoke personal interpretations that revealed a particular quirk. “The subject is asked to tell the examiner a story about each card that includes the following elements: the event shown in the picture; what has led up to it; what the characters in the picture are feeling and thinking; and the outcome of the event.” I recall the aspects of the process vividly — it was actually fun making up stories to accompany the pictures (a process I much later used when, as art director at the New York Times Book Review, we had a feature where I asked famous authors to “illustrate” drawings in words rather than the more conventional other way around). But little did I know at the time that I was under a microscope and whatever I said had consequences. Recently, I was reminded of one card — the one (shown here) that I believe changed the person I was to become.

If this sounds like melodrama, think about any art, music or writing that has changed your own life. I’ve been influenced by many images, sounds, and words, but unbeknown to me, my future hinged on my response to the TAT. My parents had “paid good money for the test, and we’re not going to ignore the findings,” my mother told me, and to this day I recall the incriminating narrative conjured by this image, a story so absurd and maladroit yet perverse that I was branded in the final evaluation as “precocious” (“indicative of early development”), which was ridiculous because I had no idea what I was talking about — I just knew a bunch of provocative words from the street.

I was barely 12 (in fact, I was 11 ½ ) and had little or no knowledge of life’s taboos, mysteries, or pleasures, save for a few grade school hygiene classes (I had not read Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, which honestly, I never read anyway and Catcher in the Rye was on the following year’s reading list). But somehow, this image triggered my infantile libido like the Maidenform ads in the New York Times Magazine; my odd narrative ended in my uncontrollably hysterical laughter. I won’t reveal the story because it is still puerile and kind of embarrassing, but at the time I thought I was clever in turning what appeared to be a tragic scenario into a sex comedy that today would have fit well as an HBO mini-series.

I’m still not clear why a 11 ½-year-old would be exposed to such prurient illustrations designed for older people. Or why this and the other pictures in the TAT were so sadly lugubrious. And how was I to know that my uncontrollable laughter over surprisingly sexy stuff that I knew nothing about was an inappropriate response — triggered, no doubt, by being mentally poked and prodded during that two-hour part of a three-day exam in a windowless NYU examining room?

When weeks afterward the manila envelope containing the evaluations arrived in the mail, my parents ushered me into my room so they could review the contents alone. After an hour of silent reading and soft whispers, they said nothing to me about it. And I blissfully didn’t ask. Little did I know that the results of the TAT were why I was banished to McBurney, a boy’s rigid prep-school, instead of a co-ed high school (where I would have been much happier) and why they insisted I could not have girls come to visit when no parent was home. Many years later, as I was rifling through my father’s dresser for loose change, I accidentally stumbled on the evaluation. Here’s the gist:

“The subject is an above average intelligent 12-year-old [couldn’t they get my age straight]. However, he appears to be precocious for a child of his age. He either understands what he’s saying or mimics what he has heard from others. . . It is our recommendation that he attend a strict high school with defined parameters. . . and play lots of exertion sports.” McBurney was a disaster and I transferred out to a “progressive school” after the first two years. The TAT was bum steer.

As reported in Psychological Science in the Public Interest (2000):
Like other projective techniques, the TAT has been criticized on the basis of poor psychometric properties. . . Criticisms include that the TAT is unscientific because it cannot be proved to be valid or reliable. . . As stories about the cards are a reflection of both the conscious and unconscious motives of the storyteller, it is difficult to disprove the conclusions of the examiner and to find appropriate behavioral measures that would represent the personality traits under examination.
So much for the exactitude of modern psychology and apperception evaluations. Even given the best intentions what I endured was replete with idiotic suggestions and fool’s promises. But I nonetheless admit that I still get a kick out of the illustration — who would not?

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