Subjects with borderline symptoms tend to present an impaired emotional regulation competence regarding attentional development – the ability to direct attention to a neutral or positive emotional situation – and cognitive change, which is the capability to modify the way people assess the situation and its associated emotional significance. Attentional bias to threat – typically found on these individuals – leads to the maintenance of their symptoms and to emotional dysregulation (Bland, Williams, Scharer, & Manning, 2004; Unoka, Fogd, Füzy, & Csukly, 2011).
Emotional Stroop is a useful approach to experimentally investigate the emotional regulation, more particularly the attentional bias for emotionally charged stimuli (Gross, 2014). This task is an adaptation of the original test (Stroop, 1935), in which the stimuli are coloured words with an emotional meaning for the subjects, thus taking more time in naming the colours in which those words are written, due to the interference of automatic emotional processes (Cabaco, 1998). Several studies have concluded that individuals with an emotional disorder have a selective processing for negative or idiosyncratic stimuli (i.e. related to their disorder), which will result in a delay in the naming colours task when faced with an Emotional Stroop (Arntz, Appels & Sieswerda, 2000; Gilboa-Schechtman, Revelle & Gotlib, 2000; Herreras & Cela, 2006).
The assessment of borderline subjects with the Emotional Stroop task was primarily made by Arntz and colleagues (2000), who demonstrate that borderline patients are slower in naming all negative emotional words, regardless of whether they are associated with their disorder or not, when compared to the control group; however, were not slower than other patients with others personality disorders. Hypervigilance was therefore directed to negative emotional words, although it wasn’t restricted to borderline patients. On the other hand, Portella and colleagues (2011) failed to replicate this study, because borderline patients had longer response times than controls for all words, regardless of their valence. This result led the authors to speculate that these subjects present an over-reactivity to all emotional stimuli, rather than the specific hypervigilance suggested by Arntz and colleagues (2000). In this way, confrontation with idiosyncratic words may trigger negative subjective experiences that persist during the test, impairing the reaction to subsequent words, whether neutral or positive – due to the inability in emotional regulation after seeing a personally relevant stimulus (Linehan, 1993; Portella et al., 2011).
Given the inconsistency between these two studies that used Words Emotional Stroop in patients with borderline disorder, we intended to investigate whether there is primacy of any hypotheses (hypervigilance vs. over-reactivity) relative to the attentional bias for emotion in subjects with borderline symptoms. Our main objective was to clarify the association between borderline personality symptoms and attentional processing of emotional and neutral words.