Reward and punishment sensitivity in borderline and avoidant personality disorders

Kathy R. Berenson, Sarah M. Van De Weert, Stella Nicolaou, Cindy Campoverde, Eshkol Rafaeli, Geraldine Downey

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


The authors compared self-reported and behavioral responses to reward and punishment in individuals diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD) or avoidant personality disorder (APD) relative to a healthy comparison (HC) group. As predicted, self-reported sensitivity to reward was significantly higher in the BPD group than in the APD and HC groups. Also as predicted, self-reported sensitivity to punishment was significantly elevated in both disordered groups but significantly higher in APD than in BPD. These hypothesized patterns were also evident in responses to behavioral tasks: Participants with BPD made more errors of commission and fewer errors of omission than HC participants on a passive avoidance learning task, and participants with APD showed greater reactivity to losses than other participants on a probabilistic reversal learning task. Results help characterize differences between these two disorders.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)573-588
Number of pages16
JournalJournal of Personality Disorders
Issue number4
StatePublished - Aug 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
From Department of Psychology, Gettysburg College, Gettsyburg, Pennsylvania (K. R. B., S. M. V. D. W., S. N., C. C.); Department of Psychology, Barnard College, New York, New York, and Department of Psychology, Bar-Ilan University, Israel (E. R.); and Department of Psychology, Columbia University, New York, New York (G. D.). Sarah M. Van De Weert is now with the Department of Psychology, American University, Washington, D.C. Stella Nicolaou is now at the Faculty of Psychology, University of Barcelona. Many thanks to Marget Thomas Fishman for her work on this project. The research was supported by National Institutes of Mental Health Grant R01 MH081948, and by the Cross-Disciplinary Science Institute at Gettysburg College (X-SIG). Address correspondence to Kathy R. Berenson, Department of Psychology, Gettysburg College, 300 N. Washington St., Gettysburg, PA 17325. E-mail:

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 The Guilford Press.


  • Avoidant
  • Borderline
  • Passive avoidance learning
  • Probabilistic reversal learning
  • Punishment
  • Reward


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