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The effect of social context on psychiatrists’ judgments of adolescent antisocial behavior

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Background:

The DSM assumes that mental disorders can be identified by the presence of specific co-occurring symptoms associated with certain duration and impaired functioning, independent of the social context in which symptoms occur. The validity of this assumption was tested using the judgments of experienced psychiatrists. We hypothesized that psychiatrists would judge an identical set of adolescent antisocial behaviors, meeting the DSM-IV diagnostic criteria for conduct disorder, as indicative of mental disorder or non-disordered problem-in-living, depending on the social context. Method:

A representative sample of 483 psychiatrists in the United States read one of three experimentally manipulated vignettes depicting adolescent antisocial behavior and responded to questions concerning its nature, prognosis, cause, and response to various treatments. Results:

Results supported our hypothesis. Under some circumstances, a youth may exhibit behaviors that meet the DSM-IV diagnostic criteria for conduct disorder, but be judged by psychiatrists as not having a mental disorder. In addition, as predicted, psychiatrists reached different judgments about course, etiology, and treatment responsiveness when the identical behaviors occurred in different social contexts. Conclusions:

The findings illuminate weaknesses in the validity of classification systems based on behavioral criteria independent of their social context. Implications of findings are discussed.
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Keywords: Adolescence; DSM; antisocial behavior; clinical judgment; conduct disorder; diagnosis; mental disorder; social context

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: University of California, Los Angeles, USA

Publication date: September 1, 2003

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