A hierarchical causal taxonomy of psychopathology across the life span

Benjamin B. Lahey, Robert F. Krueger, Paul J. Rathouz, Irwin D. Waldman, David H. Zald

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

290 Scopus citations


We propose a taxonomy of psychopathology based on patterns of shared causal influences identified in a review of multivariate behavior genetic studies that distinguish genetic and environmental influences that are either common to multiple dimensions of psychopathology or unique to each dimension. At the phenotypic level, first-order dimensions are defined by correlations among symptoms; correlations among first-order dimensions similarly define higher-order domains (e.g., internalizing or externalizing psychopathology). We hypothesize that the robust phenotypic correlations among first-order dimensions reflect a hierarchy of increasingly specific etiologic influences. Some nonspecific etiologic factors increase risk for all first-order dimensions of psychopathology to varying degrees through a general factor of psychopathology. Other nonspecific etiologic factors increase risk only for all first-order dimensions within a more specific higher-order domain. Furthermore, each first-order dimension has its own unique causal influences. Genetic and environmental influences common to family members tend to be nonspecific, whereas environmental influences unique to each individual are more dimensionspecific. We posit that these causal influences on psychopathology are moderated by sex and developmental processes. This causal taxonomy also provides a novel framework for understanding the heterogeneity of each first-order dimension: Different persons exhibiting similar symptoms may be influenced by different combinations of etiologic influences from each of the 3 levels of the etiologic hierarchy. Furthermore, we relate the proposed causal taxonomy to transdimensional psychobiological processes, which also impact the heterogeneity of each psychopathology dimension. This causal taxonomy implies the need for changes in strategies for studying the etiology, psychobiology, prevention, and treatment of psychopathology.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)142-186
Number of pages45
JournalPsychological Bulletin
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 1 2017

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2016 American Psychological Association.


  • Etiology
  • General factor
  • P-factor
  • Psychopathology
  • Taxonomy


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