The ability to decode emotions is a basic social skill. Knowing whether the people you’re with are happy, angry, fearful, or sad will help you gauge how exactly to interact with them.

In people with borderline personality, who are defined in part by their difficulties in relationships, the risk would seem greater than for most. On the one hand, they may become highly attuned to the facial expressions of the people they’re with, so as to determine whether they’re going to be rejected. In this case, they would be biased toward reading more negativity into people’s faces than is justified. Alternatively, they may show an “empathy paradox” in which they are overly sensitive to any emotions, both negative and positive. Finally, they may fail to read emotional cues entirely, and therefore be under-attentive to how others are feeling.

All of these possibilities, demonstrated in prior research, led Long Island University’s Kevin Meehan and colleagues (2017) to investigate systematically the ability of people varying in degree of borderline personality disorder (BPD) symptoms to detect accurately the expression of emotions in computer-generated faces. The faces were designed to display neutral emotions or the negative emotions of anger, disgust, fear or sadness; as shown on the computer screen portraying standard faces (whose gender wasn’t necessarily obvious), neutral faces morphed into faces depicting one of the four emotions. The intensity levels of the negative emotions were designed to reflect 25 percent, 50 percent, and 75 percent of the emotion. The 113 undergraduates in the sample (average age of 21 years old) were asked to rate the faces for presence or absence of emotion and then which emotion the face displayed. Meehan and his colleagues expected that the participants high in BPD symptoms would be more likely to interpret neutral faces as emotional. In the case of low-level negative emotion faces, the research team predicted hypersensitivity to the low-level negative faces. These findings would be consistent with the “negativity bias” and “empathy paradox” views of facial emotion processing in people with BPD symptoms.

Adding to the mix, however, was the LIU research team’s belief that people with high BPD symptoms would be less likely to show these two emotion processing deficits if they could exert high levels of “effortful control” when viewing faces conveying neutral or negative emotions. As defined by Meehan et al., effortful control (EC) “is the self-regulatory aspect of temperament that allows individuals to strategically regulate contingent emotions, impulses, and thoughts for the sake of valued goals, thereby promoting social adjustment” (p. 348). In other words, because of EC, you’re able to avoid throwing a tantrum when someone gets in your way or thwarts your achieving an important goal. People high in BPD features should, the authors argue, be able to exert more EC when they’re stirred up because they know how to regulate their potentially out of control emotions. Moreover, the higher their EC, the less prey such individuals should be to the distorting effects of the negativity bias and the empathy paradox.

The participants in the LIU study didn’t fit the clinical criteria for BPD, but they did score across a reasonably wide range on a standard measure of BPD features or symptoms (from 0 to 10 on a 15-item scale). In addition to measuring total BPD symptoms, the authors asked participants to complete a measure of EC comprised of these three subscales:

  1. Activation control: How likely you are to perform an action when you would rather not (such as getting an unpleasant task done on time).
  2. Effortful attention: Whether you can switch attention or focus your attention on the task in front of you.
  3. Inhibitory control: Your ability to hold back from showing inappropriate behavior such as making jokes while in a situation calling for a serious response.

The reason that people high in EC should be better at reading emotions from facial expressions is that they can focus their attention, set aside their own emotions, and keep from jumping to conclusions. These tendencies should, the authors argued, help people with higher levels of BPD to manage their own feelings and look more objectively at the faces presented to them during the emotion recognition task.

Given, once again, that the sample participants did not have clinical symptoms of BPD, the findings most relevant to the research question would seem to apply to those participants who received the highest scores on the diagnostic scale. In fact, this is what the results showed. The participants with high BPD-like symptoms and low EC were less accurate in judging neutral faces as neutral. In other words, BPD was associated with the tendency to “see” emotions when no emotions are present.

With regard to faces depicting emotions, participants with high BPD scores correctly identified three of the four stimuli at earlier stages in the morphing process than did those with lower BPD features. The bias shown by high BPD participants was more evident in the emotions reflecting “potential interpersonal rejection (i.e. anger and disgust) or threat/alarm around or about oneself (i.e. fear)” (p. 352). There were no effects on BPD scores on detection of sadness. There were no effects on emotion detection of EC. The authors interpreted these findings as suggesting that the actual labeling of emotions is a more voluntary “reflective” process than the detection of emotions as present or absent. It is only at the “reflexive” stage of emotion detection (i.e. determining whether an emotion is present or not) that EC becomes relevant.

With this distinction between emotion recognition and emotion labeling, the authors believe their findings support both the negativity bias and the empathy paradox explanations of BPD in relationship to the reading of emotions in the face. If, however, the individual’s “top-down” control of reflexive reactions to neutral faces is operating, then this negativity bias can be overcome. Lacking this emotional control doesn’t mean that the person with BPD is fated to be hyper-sensitive to negativity, though. Double-checking your initial reaction to a face that is truly neutral is a process that can be learned.

Being able to detect accurately another person’s emotions via a reading of the face is a skill that everyone can benefit from possessing. The LIU study shows how certain individuals prone to a negativity bias can, through such control, be helped to interact more successfully with the people in their lives.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, 2017.


Meehan, K. B., Panfilis, C. D., Cain, N. M., Antonucci, C., Soliani, A., Clarkin, J. F., & Sambataro, F. (2017). Facial emotion recognition and borderline personality pathology. Psychiatry Research, 255347-354. doi:10.1016/j.psychres.2017.05.042

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