Diagnostic criteria as dysfunction indicators: Bridging the chasm between the definition of mental disorder and diagnostic criteria for specific disorders

Michael B. First, Jerome C. Wakefield

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


According to the introduction to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), Fifth Edition, each disorder must satisfy the definition of mental disorder, which requires the presence of both harm and dysfunction. Constructing criteria sets to require harm is relatively straightforward. However, establishing the presence of dysfunction is necessarily inferential because of the lack of knowledge of internal psychological and biological processes and their functions and dysfunctions. Given that virtually every psychiatric symptom characteristic of a DSM disorder can occur under some circumstances in a normally functioning person, diagnostic criteria based on symptoms must be constructed so that the symptoms indicate an internal dysfunction, and are thus inherently pathosuggestive. In this paper, we review strategies used in DSM criteria sets for increasing the pathosuggestiveness of symptoms to ensure that the disorder meets the requirements of the definition of mental disorder. Strategies include the following: requiring a minimum duration and persistence; requiring that the frequency or intensity of a symptom exceed that seen in normal people; requiring disproportionality of symptoms, given the context; requiring pervasiveness of symptom expression across contexts; adding specific exclusions for contextual scenarios in which symptoms are best understood as normal reactions; combining symptoms to increase cumulative pathosuggestiveness; and requiring enough symptoms from an overall syndrome to meet a minimum threshold of pathosuggestiveness. We propose that future revisions of the DSM consider systematic implementation of these strategies in the construction and revision of criteria sets, with the goal of maximizing the pathosuggestiveness of diagnostic criteria to reduce the potential for diagnostic false positives.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)663-669
Number of pages7
JournalCanadian Journal of Psychiatry
Issue number12
StatePublished - Dec 2013


  • DSM-5
  • Diagnosis
  • Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders-fifth edition
  • Dysfunction
  • False positives
  • Mental disorder definition

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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