Emotion Vulnerability in the Context of Positively Valenced Stimuli: Associations with Borderline Personality Disorder Symptom Severity

  • Gregory E. WilliamsEmail author
  • Amanda A. Uliaszek


Theories of borderline personality disorder (BPD) have posited that emotion vulnerability (including greater baseline emotion intensity, greater emotion reactivity to salient stimuli, and slower return to emotional baseline) is a key etiological factor in the development of the disorder. Despite evidence to suggest that baseline negative emotion is greater in individuals with BPD (and perhaps across psychopathology), less is known about potential patterns of positive emotion vulnerability that may be uniquely associated with BPD symptoms. In the current study, 120 undergraduate students enrolled in an introductory psychology course were shown three positively valenced video clips. Self-report and psychophysiological indices of emotion (i.e., respiratory sinus arrhythmia and galvanic skin response) were measured before, during, and after each clip. Analyses examined associations with BPD and depression symptom severity. Some evidence was found for a more attenuated subjective positive emotional response specific to BPD symptom severity, distinct from the effects of depression severity. Other patterns of associations with BPD severity, including greater baseline negative emotion and attenuated parasympathetic activity, were largely accounted for by depression severity. Results also suggested that positive emotion vulnerability in BPD may be somewhat context specific, and certain positively valenced stimuli (e.g., others expressing positive emotion) may contribute more to attenuated positive emotional responses. More broadly, this study highlights the value in examining how psychopathology may impact emotional responses to positive stimuli specifically.


Emotion vulnerability Borderline personality disorder Positive emotion Positive stimuli Emotional reactivity Biosocial theory 



The authors wish to acknowledge the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada for supporting this research through a Canadian Graduate Scholarship Master’s Award awarded to the first author. We also wish to thank the research assistants who contributed to this project – Ekaterina Kapoustina, Nikoo Norouzian, and Jeffrey Garel.


This research was funded through a Canada Graduate Scholarship Master’s Award from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) awarded to the first author.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

Gregory E. Williams and Amanda A. Uliaszek declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical Approval

This research was approved by the University of Toronto Research Ethics Board. All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

Informed Consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.


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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity of Toronto ScarboroughTorontoCanada

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