Do People with Bipolar Disorder Have a Lack of Empathy?

Most of us have our ups and downs. It’s part of life. But people who have bipolar disorder experience highs and lows that are extreme enough to interfere with personal relationships, work, and daily activities.

Did You Know?
About 6 million American adults have bipolar disorder.

Bipolar disorder, also called manic depression, is a mental disorder. The cause is unknown. Scientists believe that genetics and an imbalance of neurotransmitters that carry signals between brain cells offer strong clues.


Mania and Depression

There are different types of bipolar disorder. There are also nuanced variations of each type. There are two components that each type has in common: mania or hypomania, and depression.


Manic episodes are the “ups” or “highs” of bipolar depression. Some people may enjoy the euphoria that can occur with mania. Mania, though, may lead to risky behaviors. These may include draining your savings account, drinking too much, or telling off your boss. Common symptoms of mania include:

  • high energy and restlessness
  • reduced need for sleep
  • excessive, racing thoughts and speech
  • difficulty concentrating and staying on task
  • grandiosity, self-importance
  • impulsiveness
  • irritability, impatience
Celebrities with Bipolar Disorder
Bipolar disorder is an equal-opportunity condition. Here are just a few of the people you may recognize who have the disorder:
  • Carrie Fisher
  • Patrick J. Kennedy
  • Theodore Roosevelt (unconfirmed)
  • Ted Turner
  • Ben Stiller
  • Jim Carrey
  • Catherine Zeta-Jones


Depressive episodes can be described as the “lows” of bipolar disorder. Common symptoms of depressive episodes include:

  • persistent sadness
  • lack of energy or sluggishness
  • trouble sleeping
  • loss of interest in normal activities
  • difficulty concentrating
  • feelings of hopelessness
  • worry or anxiety
  • thoughts of suicide

Each person experiences bipolar disorder differently. For many people, depression is the dominant symptom. A person may also experience highs without depression, though this is less common. Others may have a combination of depressive and manic symptoms.

What Is Empathy?

Empathy is the ability to understand and share another person’s feelings. It’s a heartfelt “walking in another man's shoes” and “I feel your pain,” rolled into one. Psychologists often refer to two types of empathy: affective and cognitive.


Affective empathy is the ability to feel or share in another person’s emotions. It is sometimes called emotional empathy. It may also be called primitive empathy.

Cognitive empathy, on the other hand is the ability to recognize and understand another person’s perspective and emotions.

In a study that looked at MRI images of peoples’ brains, affective empathy was seen to affect the brain in different ways from cognitive empathy. Affective empathy activated the emotional processing areas of the brain. Cognitive empathy, on the other hand, activated the area of the brain associated with executive function, or thought, reasoning, and decision-making.

What the Research Says

Most studies looking at the effects of bipolar disorder on empathy have relied on a small number of participants. That makes it difficult to come to any definitive conclusions. Research results are sometimes conflicting as well. Existing research does, however, provide some insight into the disorder.

There is some evidence that people with bipolar disorder may have difficulty experiencing affective empathy. Cognitive empathy seems to be less affected by bipolar disorder than affective empathy. More research is needed on the effect of mood symptoms on empathy.


In one study, people with bipolar disorder had difficulty recognizing and responding to facial expressions associated with specific emotions. They also had difficulty understanding the emotions they might feel in given situations. These are both examples of affective empathy.

In another study, a group of participants self-reported their experiences with empathy. Participants with bipolar disorder reported experiencing less empathy and concern. The participants were then tested on their empathy through a series of empathy-related tasks. In the test, participants experienced more empathy than indicated by their self-reporting. People with bipolar disorder did have difficulty recognizing emotional cues in others. This is an example of affective empathy.

Research published in the Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, on the other hand, found people with bipolar disorder to experience high personal distress in response to tense situations involving other people. This is associated with affective empathy. The study also determined that people with bipolar disorder have deficits in cognitive empathy.


People with bipolar disorder may, in some ways, be less empathetic than people who don’t have the disorder. Further research is needed.

The symptoms of bipolar disorder can be greatly reduced with treatment. If you or someone you care about has bipolar disorder, seek help from a mental health provider. They can help you find the best treatment for your specific symptoms.

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