Socio-cognitive processing in people with eating disorders: computerized tests of mentalizing, empathy and imitation skills

Elisa Corsi, Valentina Cardi, Sophie Sowden, Michel-Pierre Coll, Giarmmarco Cascino, Valdo Ricca, Janet Treasure, Geoff Bird, Alessio Maria Monteleone

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Eating disorders are psychiatric illnesses characterized by extreme eating behaviors, such as sustained food restriction or loss of control over eating. Symptoms are thought to be maintained by a variety of mechanisms, one of which may be the socio-cognitive impairments associated with eating disorders. While some previous work has addressed socio-cognitive impairments in eating disorders, this work has relied mostly on self-report data.

Here we employed computerized tests of (a) mentalizing (ability to infer the mental states of others); (b) empathy (the degree to which the emotional states of others can be identified and the degree to which the states of others impact one's own emotional state); and (c) imitation (the degree to which observation of another's actions prompts the performance of those actions); in a group of 78 women with an eating disorder and a matched control group of 66 healthy women.

People with eating disorders showed both hyper- and hypo-mentalizing and reduced accuracy of emotional and cognitive mental state inference. They displayed less imitation of observed actions, but no differences in empathy compared to healthy controls. Although anxiety and depressive symptoms had significant effects on mentalizing, most of the observed inter-group differences persisted.

Women with eating disorders have difficulties mentalizing and imitating observed actions despite intact non-social automatic imitation, compared to healthy controls. These findings provide an indication that intervention modules to strengthen specific areas of social cognition might be helpful to improve patients' social skills.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1509-1518
JournalInternational Journal of Eating Disorders
Issue number8
Early online date31 May 2021
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2021


  • eating disorders
  • empathy
  • experimental tasks
  • imitation
  • mentalizing
  • social cognition


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