Study Shows Personality Disorders Are not Fixed Deficits

A psychological research published in the Archives of General Psychiatry challenges some long-held belief y behavioral scientists that personality disorders are deficits that do not change over time. Using a statistical method different from previous research, the study found that indicators of personality disorders decreased over time.

In other words, the study suggests that personality disorders are deficits that change throughout people’s lives. This finding counters the popular view that disorders like antisocial personality disorder and narcissistic personality disorder are inflexible and thus basically untreatable

State University of New York at Binghamton psychology professor Mark F. Lenzenweger and colleagues based their study on four years of data from the Longitudinal Study of Personality Disorders. They analyzed individual growth curve to track 250 people who were in their freshman year in college at the time they participated in the longitudinal study in 1990.

Lenzenweger and his team evaluated each individual thrice over four years for the personality disorder features included in the then-current DSM-III. After the fourth year, they plotted the number of the study participants’ personality disorder features at the three evaluation points. The team found that, at the outset, 50% was at-risk for a personality disorder and about 10% were diagnosed during the study.

Some participants’ personality disorder features showed an increase over time, whereas others decreased. On the average, however, the total number of personality disorder features decreased 1.4 features every year. According to Lenzenweger, "For something that’s not supposed to be changing at all according to the DSM system, we saw a substantial amount of change."

Lenzenweger notes, however, that it is uncertain whether the psychological treatments the participants sought worked for personality disorder problems, since the researchers were not able to differentiate between less effective therapies and emerging ones designed for personality disorders (dialectical behavior therapy or transference-based therapy). In additions, since the socioeconomic status and age of the participants do not reflect the United States population, Lenzenweger and colleagues’ findings must be replicated.

Considering the caveats, Lenzenweger concludes that their findings still provide a ‘bright light’ for professionals who research and treat personality disorders. He says, "The flexibility has been documented, and now we have to develop treatments that can tap into that."