Aberrant link between empathy and social attribution style in borderline personality disorder

Philipp Homan, Marianne C. Reddan, Tobias Brosch, Harold W. Koenigsberg, Daniela Schiller

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


In social interactions, we often need to quickly infer why other people do what they do. More often than not, we infer that behavior is a result of personality rather than circumstances. It is unclear how the tendency itself may contribute to psychopathology and interpersonal dysfunction. Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is characterized by severe interpersonal dysfunction. Here, we investigated if this dysfunction is related to the tendency to over-attribute behaviors to personality traits. Healthy controls and patients with BPD judged positive and negative behaviors presented within a situational constraint during functional magnetic resonance imaging. Before the experiment, we measured trait levels of empathy, paranoia, and need for cognition. Behaviorally, we found that empathy levels predicted the tendency to attribute behavior to traits in healthy controls, whereas in patients with BPD this relationship was significantly weakened. Whole brain analysis of group-by-empathy interaction revealed that when participants judged the behavior during the attribution phase, several brain regions implicated in mentalizing distinguished patients from controls: In healthy controls, neural activity scaled negatively with empathy, but this relationship was reversed in BPD patients. Due to the cross-sectional study design we cannot establish a causal link between empathy and social attributions. These findings indicate that the self-reported tendency to feel for others is related to the tendency to integrate situational information beyond personality. In BPD patients, by contrast, the association between empathy and attribution was significantly weaker, rendering empathy less informative in predicting the overall attribution style.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)163-171
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Psychiatric Research
StatePublished - Nov 2017
Externally publishedYes


  • Attribution
  • Borderline personality disorder
  • Empathy
  • Mentalizing
  • Social cognition
  • Temporoparietal junction

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Biological Psychiatry


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