The purpose of this study was to evaluate the psychometric properties of DSM-IV symptom criteria for assessing personality disorders (PDs) in a national population and to compare variations in proposed symptom coding for social and/or occupational dysfunction. Data were obtained from a total sample of 34,653 respondents from Waves 1 and 2 of the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions (NESARC). For each personality disorder, confirmatory factor analysis (CFA) established a 1-factor latent factor structure for the respective symptom criteria. A 2-parameter item response theory (IRT) model was applied to the symptom criteria for each PD to assess the probabilities of symptom item endorsements across different values of the underlying trait (latent factor). Findings were compared with a separate IRT model using an alternative coding of symptom criteria that requires distress/impairment to be related to each criterion. The CFAs yielded a good fit for a single underlying latent dimension for each PD. Findings from the IRT indicated that DSM-IV PD symptom criteria are clustered in the moderate to severe range of the underlying latent dimension for each PD and are peaked, indicating high measurement precision only within a narrow range of the underlying trait and lower measurement precision at lower and higher levels of severity. Compared with the NESARC symptom coding, the IRT results for the alternative symptom coding are shifted toward the more severe range of the latent trait but generally have lower measurement precision for each PD. The IRT findings provide support for a reliable assessment of each PD for both NESARC and alternative coding for distress/impairment. The use of symptom dysfunction for each criterion, however, raises a number of issues and implications for the DSM-5 revision currently proposed for Axis II disorders (American Psychiatric Association, 2010).
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