Patients with borderline personality disorder and comorbid PTSD show biased attention for threat in the facial dot-probe task

Deborah Kaiser, Gitta A Jacob, Linda van Zutphen, Nicolette Siep, Andreas Sprenger, Brunna Tuschen-Caffier, Alena Senft, Arnoud Arntz, Gregor Domes*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


BACKGROUND AND OBJECTIVES: Biased attention to threat is likely to play a crucial role in the dysfunctional emotion-related information processing in borderline personality disorder (BPD). However, the role of comorbid posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has not yet been fully disentangled.

METHODS: BPD patients with (n = 24) and without (n = 46) PTSD, 35 patients with Cluster-C personality disorder and 52 non-patients participated in the facial dot-probe task with angry, happy and neutral faces during automatic (100 ms), controlled (600 ms), and later (1200 ms) stages of information processing.

RESULTS: BPD patients showed a greater congruency effect to angry faces during the controlled stage of processing than controls. Specifically, in BPD with PTSD compared to controls, this effect was due to difficulties disengaging from threat, indicated by slower reaction times to incongruent angry targets compared to neutral trials. Regarding automatic and later stages of information processing, there was no attentional bias (AB) in BPD. None of the groups revealed biased attention for happy faces at any stages of information processing.

LIMITATIONS: We did not include a control group of PTSD patients without BPD. Therefore, we cannot rule out that the present AB in BPD is mainly due to PTSD-specific psychopathology.

CONCLUSIONS: These findings provide first evidence for an AB towards angry faces and difficulties disengaging from these threat-related social cues in adult BPD patients. Although BPD patients in general demonstrated an AB when compared with controls, this effect was especially pronounced for BPD with PTSD, suggesting a significant effect of trauma-related psychopathology on social attention in BPD.

Original languageEnglish
Article number101437
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry
Early online date26 Nov 2018
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2020


  • Attention
  • Borderline personality disorder
  • Cluster-C personality disorder
  • Emotion
  • FACE
  • Facial dot-probe task
  • Facial expressions
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder


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