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 CAT—the CAT-S—the 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 20–45 minutes to administer, is conducted by a trained professional—psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker, teacher or specially trained pediatrician—in 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 story—with a beginning, middle, and end—about 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): 141–54.

Kamphaus, R. W., et al. "Current trends in psychological testing of children." Professional Psychology: Research and Practice 31 (2000): 155–64.


American Psychological Association Committee on Psychological Tests and Assessments. 750 First St., NE, Washington, DC 20002–4242. 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.

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