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What drives compulsive lying?

The Truth Behind Pathological and Compulsive Liars

We all lie, but some people take it to extremes, destroying careers and relationships in the process.

Kathleen Doheny

By Kathleen Doheny Medically Reviewed by Kathryn Keegan, MD
Reviewed: February 16, 2016

two people wearing masks

Admit it: From time to time, you lie — at least a little. Your best friend asks what you think of her new haircut. It’s awful, but you tell her it looks great. A spouse wants to know if that extra 10 pounds shows, and of course, you say it doesn’t.

«Lying is part and parcel of everyday life,» says Robert Feldman, PhD, professor of psychological and brain sciences and deputy chancellor at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. «In a sense, lies are the lubricants that move social interaction forward,» says Dr. Feldman, who wrote The Liar in Your Life.

But when lying gets out of control it can wreak havoc in your personal and professional lives — potentially destroying relationships and careers.

Here’s what you need to know about extreme lying.

Compulsive vs. Pathological Liars

Out-of-control lying is known as compulsive or pathological lying. Definitions are fluid, experts say.

Compulsive liars have a need to embellish and exaggerate, says Paul Ekman, PhD, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California in San Francisco and the author of Telling Lies, among other books. «They tell the stories they think want to be heard,» he says. When you ask a compulsive liar for an opinion on an important issue, says Dr. Ekman, they’re likely to say something like this: «You know, you made a really wise choice in asking my opinion. Many people do. I’ve actually been asked by the governor of California to comment on this.»

«Often, they’re pretty good liars,» Ekman adds. «You often believe what they say — at least for a while.»

Pathological liars may be even bolder. They »continue to lie when they know you know they’re lying,» Ekman says. The two lying types are pretty similar, he says, and actually, »You could be a compulsive pathological liar.»

Neither compulsive nor pathological lying has been studied extensively, say Feldman and Ekman. «I don’t think we really know enough about the etiology [causes] of these to know if they should be considered a mental disorder,» notes Ekman.

For example, experts don’t know for sure what drives the troublesome lying. They know impulsivity and a need to impress could be linked to the habit. But they’ve debated whether these types of lying are symptoms or a disease.

Liars’ brains may differ structurally from the average brain. In a study in The British Journal of Psychiatry, scientists did brain scans on pathological liars and others, and found that the liars had more white matter in the brain’s prefrontal cortex. They concluded that the increase in white matter may somehow provide these «super-liars» with »the cognitive capacity to lie.»

While everyday lies are goal-directed — you don’t want to hurt the feelings of your overweight spouse — pathological lies often seem purposeless. Sometimes the lies are even self-incriminating, making them that much more difficult to figure out.

Compared to pathological liars, compulsive liars can get along pretty well in life, Ekman says. «Compulsive liars usually get away with it because they tell the lies we want to believe.»

Fortunately, neither type of liar is common, according to Feldman and Ekman. Ekman estimates fewer than 5 percent of people lie compulsively or pathologically.

Can Compulsive or Pathological Liars Change?

In Ekman’s experience, most liars who are compulsive or pathological don’t want to change enough to enter treatment. Usually they only do so when directed by court order, after they’ve gotten into trouble, he says. Or they do so after their lies have resulted in dire consequences such as bankruptcy, divorce, or loss of a career.

Little research exists on treatment options for liars. Counseling or psychotherapy may help, with a focus on how to reduce impulsivity.

Spotting, Living With, or Working for a Whopper of a Liar

Can you tell on first meeting that someone might be a troubled liar? It’s difficult, but Ekman has found this rule-of-thumb helpful: «In the first half hour [of meeting someone], if I want to invite them home for dinner, I watch out!» he says. That means their charm, a characteristic of liars, may have worked its devilish magic.

If a new friend or acquaintance shows his colors as a compulsive or pathological liar, the mentally healthy thing to do is walk away, Ekman says. «What people value in friendships is truthfulness,” he says.

While those closely tied to a pathological liar may stay optimistic that the liar will change, Ekman tells them: «You also need to be a realist. Do you really want to spend your life, at work or at home, wondering if you’re being duped?»

Pathological liars are so good, Feldman agrees, »so you won’t know when you’re being lied to.» Don’t expect remorse, either, he says. «Pathological liars will look at a situation entirely from their own perspective. They have no regard for another’s feelings about what might happen as a result of their lies,» Feldman says.

Reality Check: What drives pathological liars and how should you deal with them?

Reality Check: What drives pathological liars and how should you deal with them? © Getty Images

Rather than telling the occasional white lie, pathological liars habitually and regularly tell fibs, often painting themselves as a hero or a victim. Why?

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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.

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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.

Read more about the psychology of lying:

  • Why we like being lied to
  • Five ways to get anyone to tell you the truth
  • Daniel Levitin on how to spot a lie
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