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The TAT of tarot cards

Reading tarot cards is a creative activity. But why?

The cards tell stories. They make you think: “What is going on here?” They tickle your imagination to come up with an explanation. You want to give the scene meaning.

Most tarot creators consciously work ambiguity into the images.

The querent is often encouraged to ask:

  • What is going on?
  • What are the people (or animals) thinking and feeling?
  • What happened just before?
  • What is going to happen now?

The story you come up with is intimately connected to the interpretation you give to a card.

Tarot cards are like the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT) cards psychologists have used since the 1930s to get to the heart of a problem. TAT cards can reveal the motivations, emotions and conflicts the patient experiences.

TAT card

TAT cards contain ambiguous images; patients are asked to imagine a story around the figures on the card. They are asked:

  1. What is happening on the card?
  2. What are the characters thinking and feeling?
  3. What led up to the situation?
  4. What will the outcome be?

The rationale behind the technique is that people tend to interpret ambiguous situations in accordance with their own experiences and motivations, which may be conscious or unconscious. (Wikipedia) (emphasis added).

These words might as well apply to tarot cards.

What makes both activities interesting is the diverse stories people come up with. With tarot cards in particular, what you feel is happening on the card is not necessarily what the artist intended. The meaning you give to the card is closely linked to the situation you are in, your feelings and fears, conflicts, and motivations, whether conscious or unconscious.

The tarot reader has to find meaning in a card in a particular reading, for a specific querent, and in certain circumstances.

This takes a great deal of creativity.

Image: TAT Picture 2: ©Murray, H. A. (1943).Thematic apperception test. Harvard University Press


Blais, M. A., Sinclair, S. J., & O’Keefe, S. M. (2016). Understanding and applying psychological assessment. In Massachusetts General Hospital comprehensive clinical psychiatry (2nd ed.). Elsevier. https://www.clinicalkey.com/#!/content/book/3-s2.0-B978032329507900007X

Wikipedia. (n.d.). Thematic apperception test. Wikipedia. Retrieved 12 September 2022 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thematic_apperception_test.

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