Are people with borderline personality really more empathic?

People with borderline personality disorder (BPD) are emotionally fragile, impulsive, suffer from low mood, have intense unstable personal relationships and - according to a handful of studies - they also have enhanced empathy.

But new research by Judith Flury and colleagues shows the idea that BPD patients have enhanced empathy is a spurious finding reflecting the methodological design of prior studies combined with the fact BPD patients are particularly difficult to read.

The 76 lowest and highest scorers on the Borderline Syndrome Index were selected from among 789 students. These 76 were then arranged into pairs of low and high borderline participants. The members of each pair were videoed chatting to each other for ten minutes, after which each person completed a personality questionnaire about themselves, and about how they thought their partner saw themselves. This latter part of the design mirrors the methodology of earlier studies that seemed to show BPD is associated with enhanced empathy.

As in the earlier studies, it turned out that the high borderline students were better than the low borderline students at predicting how their partners scored their own personalities - a sign of empathy, you'd think. But further analysis showed that this finding was caused by the fact that all the students tended to score their partners' personalities in a fairly stereotypical way. This tactic worked if a participant's partner was low borderline (with a less unusual personality profile), but not if they were high borderline with an unusual personality profile - hence the apparent finding that high borderline scorers are more empathic.

The students also watched the videos of themselves meeting their partners, and recorded the main thoughts and feelings they had experienced during the encounter. They then watched the video again and attempted to predict what their partner had reported thinking and feeling during the encounter. Again, the high borderline students scored better at this task, but as before, this simply reflected the fact that within each of the student pairs, it was the low borderline students who had the more predictable, less outlandish thoughts and feelings.

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchFLURY, J., ICKES, W., SCHWEINLE, W. (2008). The borderline empathy effect: Do high BPD individuals have greater empathic ability? Or are they just more difficult to "read"? Journal of Research in Personality, 42(2), 312-332. DOI: 10.1016/j.jrp.2007.05.008
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