Large scale research projects in behaviour genetics and genetic epidemiology are often based on questionnaire or interview data. Typically, a number of items is presented to a number of subjects, the subjects' sum scores on the items are computed, and the variance of sum scores is decomposed into a number of variance components. This paper discusses several disadvantages of the approach of analysing sum scores, such as the attenuation of correlations amongst sum scores due to their unreliability. It is shown that the framework of Item Response Theory (IRT) offers a solution to most of these problems. We argue that an IRT approach in combination with Markov chain Monte Carlo (MCMC) estimation provides a flexible and efficient framework for modelling behavioural phenotypes. Next, we use data simulation to illustrate the potentially huge bias in estimating variance components on the basis of sum scores. We then apply the IRT approach with an analysis of attention problems in young adult twins where the variance decomposition model is extended with an IRT measurement model. We show that when estimating an IRT measurement model and a variance decomposition model simultaneously, the estimate for the heritability of attention problems increases from 40% (based on sum scores) to 73%. © 2007 Springer Science+Business Media, LLC.