People who have borderline personality disorder are often vigilant towards other people’s external signs about their emotional states but have difficulty in correctly identifying the emotions being displayed. A study published in BMC Psychology suggests that growing up in a disengaged or controlling environment can contribute to these missteps.
Borderline personality disorder can be characterized by both hyper and hyposensitivity to emotions and a reduced ability to recognize emotions by facial expressions. This is thought to be in large part due to early life trauma and attachment issues. Previous research has linked earlier and more severe BPD symptomology with maltreatment and dysfunction during childhood. This study seeks to better understand how facial emotion recognition is affected by types of early adversity.
Study author Marion Robin and colleagues utilized a sample comprised of 45 adolescents with BPD and 44 healthy control adolescents. The sample was comprised of adolescents living in France, Belgium, and Switzerland. The BPD sample came from 5 psychiatric center while the controls were recruited from schools and were matched to the sample by age, gender, and socioeconomic status. Of the participants with BPD, 67.1% were inpatients and 95.6% were on psychotropic medication. All participants completed measures on emotion recognition, psychopathology, and childhood maltreatment.
Results showed that in regard to facial emotion recognition, participants with BPD had lower sensitivity than the control group but showed similar levels of accuracy. The BPD group needed increased time to accurately identify the emotion but were able to do so. This study took into account two types of parental adversity: deficit (withdrawal, neglect) and excess (control, abuse). Deficit behaviors were associated with higher sensitivity among BPD adolescents, while excess behaviors were associated with lower levels of accuracy. Attachment style was not found to be a significant predictor of facial emotional recognition in this study.
This study took strides toward better understanding the way childhood adversity can affect people with borderline personality disorder’s ability to understand and interpret emotions from facial expressions. Despite this, it has some limitations to note. One such limitation is that the childhood mistreatment questionnaire is self-report, which could lead to misremembering or dishonesty. Additionally, the sample was more than three quarters female, which could mean there are gender differences not noted by this sample. Future research could expand sample size and include more male participants.
“Despite these limitations, future perspectives may be drawn in the light of our study,” the researchers concluded. “By including young adolescents, the research allows us to explore the mechanisms of trauma at an early stage of the disease. The present study supports clinical and theoretical observations suggesting that emotional sensitivity in BPD individuals is a core feature of the disorder from the beginning, and adds to the understanding of environmental dimensions, disengaged and controlling, as factors determining variations in sensitivity and accuracy.”
“Finally, these results totally reinforce the recent advance in theories of cognition, which are switching from a solitary model of human perception to an altercentric nature of human cognition, in which emotion perception is strongly determined by social environment.”
The study, “Adversity, attachment and emotion recognition in BPD adolescents: the distinct roles of disengaged and controlling environment“, was authored by Marion Robin, Jean Belbèze, Alexandra Pham-Scottez, Mario Speranza, Gérard Shadili, Jerôme Silva, and Maurice Corcos.