Bipolar Disorder & Lack of Empathy

Bipolar disorder is a mental disorder characterized by dramatic changes in an individual’s mood. Bipolar disorder can wreak havoc on the lives of those who are suffering from it as these mood fluctuations interfere with a person’s daily life. People suffering from bipolar disorder find that their mood fluctuations impair their ability to complete even their daily activities, be it at work, at home, or even at school. They are often unable to maintain stable relationships. The cause of bipolar disorder remains unknown, though it is believed that genetics and an imbalance in neurotransmitters in the brain are responsible for causing the condition. Research over the years has shown that people with bipolar disorder may experience difficulty in experiencing empathy.

Bipolar Disorder & Lack of Empathy

While more research is needed to be done on this topic, it is usually seen that people with bipolar disorder have difficultly recognizing and responding to particular emotions. To understand this lack of empathy, let us first begin by understanding what exactly we mean when we refer to empathy and do the highs and lows of bipolar moods affect the empathy factor in sufferers.

What is Empathy?

In a broad definition, empathy is the ability to share and understand feelings of another person. Empathy comprises of many components, each of which is associated with some point in the brain. There are three types of empathy. The first is affective empathy, which is the ability to share the emotions of other people. The second type is cognitive empathy, which is the ability to understand the emotions of other people. And the third type of empathy is emotional regulation, which is the ability to regulate one’s emotions. Empathy is important and it is assumed that human beings need it to survive and connect to one another. Empathy is required as it helps us understand how other people are feeling so that we can respond in an appropriate manner to the situation.

A study conducted in 2008 looked at MRI images of brains of different people to see how affective empathy affects the brain as compared to cognitive empathy. It was seen that affective empathy activated the regions of the brain that process emotions. Cognitive empathy, on the other hand, activated the regions of the brain that are associated with thought, reasoning, and decision making. Therefore, one can see that empathy is something we need to make rational decisions, keeping in mind the feelings of others.

Bipolar Disorder & Lack of Empathy

Over the years, many studies have been conducted to look at the effects of bipolar disorder on empathy. These studies have generally been conducted on a small number of participants, thus making it difficult to truly reach any definitive conclusion. Some of the results are conflicting as well. Nevertheless, many studies have provided a lot of insight into bipolar disorder and how it affects a person’s empathy.

There is definite evidence that people suffering from bipolar disorder have difficulty experiencing affective empathy. Bipolar disorder does not seem to affect cognitive empathy that much. In spite of this, further research is required to test the effect of mood symptoms on empathy. Let us check out some of these studies related to empathy and bipolar disorder.

Study 1

In a study published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research, people having bipolar disorder were shown to have difficulty recognizing and responding to other people’s facial expressions associated with certain emotions. The study further showed that these people had difficulty in understanding emotions that they ought to be feeling in specific situations. These were both examples of affective empathy and not cognitive empathy.

Study 2

Known only as the Schizophrenia Research study, a group of people was made to self-report their experiences with empathy. Participants who had bipolar disorder reported that generally, they experienced less empathy and concern. After the self-reporting, these participants were then tested on their empathy by giving them some empathy-related tasks to do. During the test, participants, however, displayed more empathy as compared to what they indicated in their self-reporting. However, people suffering from bipolar disorder did indeed have difficulty in recognizing the emotional cues from other people. This was again an example of affective empathy.

Study 3

A study that was published in the Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences showed that people suffering from bipolar disorder experience higher levels of personal distress when faced with tense interpersonal situations. This is also another association with affective empathy. The study further determined that patients with bipolar disorder have deficits in cognitive empathy as well. However, more research on this subject is required to definitively say this.


While studies show that people having bipolar disorder are in many ways less empathetic than other people who are not suffering from bipolar disorder, further research is required to support this. Symptoms of bipolar disorder can definitely be managed and reduced with treatment. Therefore, it is equally possible that with treatment, this lack of empathy can also be reversed. Seeking help from a good mental health doctor can help you find the correct treatment plan that is best suited for your symptoms.

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Team PainAssist
Team PainAssist
Written, Edited or Reviewed By: Team PainAssist, Pain Assist Inc. This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer
Last Modified On:March 10, 2018

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