Reality Check: What drives pathological liars and how should you deal with them?
Rather than telling the occasional white lie, pathological liars habitually and regularly tell fibs, often painting themselves as a hero or a victim. Why?
The label ‘pathological liar’ gets thrown around a lot, especially in the direction of politicians or celebrities. Although it isn't a formal psychiatric diagnosis, it is a recognised concept that psychologists and psychiatrists have been interested in for a long time, at least since 1891 when the German psychiatrist Anton Delbrueck coined the label ‘Pseudologia fantastica’ to describe several of his patients who told an astonishing amount of fantastical lies (other similar psychological terms include ‘deception syndrome’ and ‘mythomania’). So why do people do it?
How can you spot a pathological liar?
Worth noting is that while psychopaths and people with antisocial personality disorder can be inclined to excessive lying, most pathological liars are not psychopaths, nor do they necessarily have a personality disorder. Indeed, while psychopaths and people with an antisocial personality are typically manipulative and self-serving, pathological liars often lie for no apparent purpose.
Another key feature of pathological lying, as opposed to being a common-or-garden compulsive liar, is that the lies are often particularly bizarre or far-fetched.
Consider the results of a recent survey carried out by two US psychologists – Dr Drew Curtis and Dr Christian Hart – who believe pathological lying should become a discrete psychiatric diagnosis. The pair asked hundreds of volunteers to complete several measures of lying behaviour and they found that between 8 per cent to 13 per cent of them met the criteria for being a pathological liar.
How often do pathological liars tell fibs?
In the aforementioned surveys, it was found that the pathological liars lied a lot. They lied 10 times per day on average, compared to three times per day among the rest of the sample (one admitted to 66 lies in the last 24 hours, but perhaps that was a lie!). They were also more likely to lie in person rather than over the phone, text or email, and more likely than usual to lie to friends.
The pathological liars had been lying in this excessive way for six months or more (the behaviour typically first emerges in adolescence), and they said it caused them distress, largely because they did it for no apparent reason and because it was causing them relationship problems. Additionally, they said their lying felt out of control and that they did it partly to reduce anxiety.
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Why do they lie so much?
The details from the surveys fit in with some theories in scientific literature suggesting that pathological liars tell tall tales – especially of far-fetched past achievements or suffering, or grandiose social connections – as a kind of unconscious strategy to boost their fragile sense of self or low self-esteem.
For instance, in 2007 a team of Canadian psychologists reported the case of ‘Lorraine’ whose dramatic lies included a colleague sending her death threats, a friend developing a lesbian infatuation, a supposed death threat from a fiancé’s ex-wife, and her fiancé’s three-year-old setting fires in relatives' homes.
The team, led by Dr Cheryl Birch, said that the pattern was characteristic of pathological lying because the lies were harmful to Lorraine (she actually ended up in a secure forensic unit) and they weren't inspired by any apparent clear motive – they seemed to be driven by a deeper psychological need to present herself as a hero or victim.
In a case reported by a team of New York psychologists in 2015, a woman told her therapists she had made several suicide attempts, she claimed her mother had been executed in California for killing her father and stepfather, that her brother and sister had been killed and buried in the backyard by her mother, and that she had two children, including one who was the product of a rape by one of her siblings.
Subsequent investigations suggested none of this was true, except that she did have one son. This team, led by Dr Panagiota Korenis at the Bronx Lebanon Hospital Center, agreed with the other experts that habitual or compulsive lying of this kind usually emerges as a "means to assert autonomy in the face of lack of self-esteem".
How should you deal with a pathological liar?
When it comes to coping with a pathological liar, it's perhaps worth remembering the likely cause of the person's tendency to tell so many far-fetched stories. While their behaviour might be irritating and even cause serious harm (especially when it comes to false allegations), if it's driven by a deep-seated insecurity, then you might be wise to see it as a call for help, and to resist the urge to confront the person too forcefully or without sympathy.
If the pathological liar in your life is someone you care about, perhaps you could help them find more productive ways to address their low self-esteem and anxiety, or even to come to terms with a difficult past, if that's relevant. Although research into effective treatments is largely lacking (partly because ‘pathological liar’ has yet to be recognised as a formal diagnosis), a sensible step could be to gently encourage the pathological liar you know to seek professional mental health support.
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Dr Christian Jarrett is a cognitive neuroscientist, science writer and author. He is the Deputy Editor of Psyche, the sister magazine to Aeon that illuminates the human condition through psychology, philosophy and the arts. Jarrett also created the British Psychological Society's Research Digest blog and was the first ever staff journalist on the Society's magazine, The Psychologist. He is author of Great Myths of The Brain and Be Who You Want: Unlocking the Science of Personality Change.