People with borderline personality disorder (BPD) may be better able to read subtle emotions on others' faces than people without the mental illness, according to a study in the November issue of Emotion (Vol. 6, No. 4). An enhanced ability to recognize expressions of happiness, sadness, anger and fear might contribute to the unstable relationships and intense emotions characteristic of the disorder, says Thomas R. Lynch, PhD, a psychology professor at Duke University.
Lynch and his colleagues slowly morphed a computer-generated face from a neutral expression to that of a fully expressed emotion. Twenty adults with BPD and 20 healthy control participants stopped the morph when they correctly identified the emotion on the face. People with BPD identified the negative emotions, on average, when those emotions were 73 percent expressed, and mentally healthy participants made the identification at 82 percent. For happiness, the gap widened, with BPD participants identifying the emotion at 48 percent, compared with 69 percent for the control group.
People with BPD's sensitivity to the feelings of others might fuel some of the disorder's emotional regulation problems, Lynch says. Slight annoyance on the face of a therapist, for instance, might be seen as heated anger, which could kick-start an easily tapped fear of abandonment, he notes. Even being hyperaware of positive emotions could lead to trouble for people with BPD, who might see intense love instead of mild happiness. That tendency could lead to the ill-advised whirlwind romances typical of people with the disorder, Lynch adds.
"Their emotional sensitivity actually sets up conditions where they are more likely to have strong emotional responses and to perhaps overreact to minor events or situations," he says.