Can personality disorders affect one’s sense of a humor? A study published in Borderline Personality Disorder and Emotion Dysregulation suggests that borderline symptoms are associated with difficulty detecting irony.
Borderline personality disorder is a mental health condition characterized by a pattern of unstable relationships, intense emotions, impulsiveness, and a distorted sense of self. People with borderline symptoms often experience difficulties in regulating their emotions and exhibit impulsive behaviors.
Borderline personality disorder can also manifest in how individuals handle social communication. Social cognition is comprised of understanding of oneself and others and it is developed through childhood interpersonal interactions. When a child does not a reliable caregiver, which is common among those with borderline personality disorder, they tend to have a more difficult time understanding the nuance and complexity of social communication.
Irony, or saying something contrary to what is meant for a humorous effect, is a common source of misinterpretation, as it requires the ability to recognize meaning beyond literal words. The new study sought to understand how borderline personality disorder can affect the ability to detect irony.
For their research, study authors Anne Katrin Felsenheimer, Carolin Kieckhäfer, and Alexander Michael Rapp utilized 30 participants with borderline personality disorder and 30 matched controls to serve as their sample. Borderline personality disorder individuals were recruited from a dialectical behavioral therapy ward in a German hospital. Controls were matched based on age, gender, educational level, and verbal intelligence.
All participants completed measures on borderline personality symptoms, schizotypal personality symptoms, interpersonal reactivity, and the irony paradigm. The irony paradigm involved watching a videotaped context story introducing a character in a café and message exchanges. The messages involved ironic praise, literal praise, ironic criticism, or literal criticism. Participants rated their literality and perceived intention.
Results showed that participants with borderline personality disorder had a more difficult time differentiating ironic and literal statements than the control group. There were no significant differences between criticism and praise, showing that the difficulty deciphering was in the literality of the statement, rather than the intention.
Both participants with borderline personality disorder and controls had an easier time detecting ironic criticism than ironic praise, implying that ironic criticism is more easily processed overall. The control group, when interpreting literal praise ironically, assigned negative intent to the literal praise, showing a negativity bias.
Similarly, they interpreted ironic praise and literal criticism. Empathy and schizotypal symptomology were not significantly linked with irony detection beyond what is explained by borderline personality disorder.
This study took significant steps into better understanding communication in individuals with borderline personality disorder. Despite this, there are limitations to note. There was high rates of comorbidity with other psychiatric diagnoses within the BPD group. Lastly, this sample was small, well-educated, and displayed high verbal intelligence, which may not be typical for people with borderline personality disorder.
The study, “Irony detection in patients with borderline personality disorder: an experimental study examining schizotypal traits, response biases, and empathy“, was authored by Anne Katrin Felsenheimer, Carolin Kieckhäfer, and Alexander Michael Rapp.