The Sweet Spot of Clinical Intuitions: Predictors of the Effects of Context on Impressions of Conduct Disorder Symptoms

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How people interpret a mental disorder symptom has been shown to depend on the contextual life factors surrounding its presentation. Specifically, people are more likely to judge a symptom as clinically relevant if that symptom presents in a high-risk environment (e.g., child associates with deviant peers) relative to a low-risk environment (e.g., child associates with normative peer group). Importantly, not all symptoms are influenced by context to the same extent, and there is low agreement across people as to how this influence manifests. In this paper, we explore what factors predict the extent to which clinicians and laypeople interpret mental disorder symptoms as a function of diagnosis-congruent versus incongruent contextual information. We tested the impact of 2 statistical factors (prevalence and diagnosticity) and 2 more intuitive factors (diagnostic importance and abnormality) on the degree to which a symptom is interpreted differently in different contexts. Clinicians’ impressions of the diagnosticity and importance of a symptom evidenced a curvilinear relationship with the use of context, with extremely important and unimportant as well as extremely diagnostic and nondiagnostic symptoms being less influenced by context. Laypeople showed a similar curvilinear relation between diagnosticity judgments and context effects. Additionally, clinicians showed a linear relationship between abnormality judgments and context use, with extremely abnormal symptoms being influenced less by context, whereas laypeople showed a curvilinear relationship between symptom abnormality and context use, with extremely abnormal and normal symptoms being influenced the most by context. We discuss implications of these findings for clinical diagnosis.

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