Experimental investigation of cognitive and affective empathy in borderline personality disorder: Effects of ambiguity in multimodal social information processing

Psychiatry Res. 2017 Jul:253:58-63. doi: 10.1016/j.psychres.2017.03.037. Epub 2017 Mar 23.


Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is characterized by affective instability and interpersonal problems. In the context of social interaction, impairments in empathy are proposed to result in inadequate social behavior. In contrast to findings of reduced cognitive empathy, some authors suggested enhanced emotional empathy in BPD. It was investigated whether ambiguity leads to decreased cognitive or emotional empathy in BPD. Thirty-four patients with BPD and thirty-two healthy controls were presented with video clips, which were presented through prosody, facial expression, and speech content. Experimental conditions were designed to induce ambiguity by presenting neutral valence in one of these communication channels. Subjects were asked to indicate the actors' emotional valence, their decision confidence, and their own emotional state. BPD patients showed increased emotional empathy when neutral stories comprised nonverbally expressed emotions. In contrast, when all channels were emotional, patients showed lower emotional empathy than healthy controls. Regarding cognitive empathy, there were no significant differences between BPD patients and healthy control subjects in recognition accuracy, but reduced decision confidence in BPD. These results suggest that patients with BPD show altered emotional empathy, experiencing higher rates of emotional contagion when emotions are expressed nonverbally. The latter may contribute to misunderstandings and inadequate social behavior.

Keywords: Borderline Personality Disorder; Emotional intelligence; Empathy; Facial expressions; Nonverbal Communication.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Affect*
  • Borderline Personality Disorder / psychology*
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Cognition*
  • Emotions
  • Empathy*
  • Facial Expression
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Interpersonal Relations*
  • Social Behavior