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Understanding Pathological Liars

Reviewed Mar 19, 2013

Summary

  • Rooted in poor self-esteem
  • Lying for many reasons, or no reason at all
  • Not officially a mental disorder
  • Suggests deeper psychological problems

Almost everyone has encountered a pathological liar—the type of person who in one conversation claims to have dined with the Queen of England, danced back-up for Madonna, and dived with great white sharks. The problem for pathological liars is that their attempts to impress often backfire.

Instead of getting the love and attention they seek, they usually earn scorn and ridicule. A habit of lying can quickly ruin a person’s reputation and interfere with his ability to establish meaningful relationships.

We all lie, in many different ways, many times a day—mainly to avoid hurting ourselves or others. Experts believe that children figure out by the age of 4 that they can mislead others with lies. But what makes a person leap from social- or self-defense lying to habitual, compulsive lying? 

Why they lie

Some psychologists theorize that a chronic liar is trying to deceive herself as much as she is trying to deceive others. Because of poor self-esteem, she wants to believe her lies, and often does believe them, at least while she’s telling them.

Some of the hallmarks of pathological liars include telling outrageously dramatic stories, telling fibs that are easily disputed, changing stories when challenged and, most importantly, lying even when there’s no apparent benefit in telling the lie. Compulsive liars lie for many reasons, including no reason at all, but most often they lie to:

  • feel admired
  • gain popularity
  • control and manipulate
  • compensate for feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem
  • cover up failures

Although not officially designated as a mental disorder, pathological lying is often seen as the tip of the iceberg for deeper psychological problems including narcissistic personality disorder, antisocial personality disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Narcissists, for example, constantly fear being revealed as frauds and, thus, weave ever-increasing lies to bolster their fragile self-esteem. People with antisocial personality disorder do not experience guilt and, therefore, lying becomes an easy option.

One psychologist came up with the term “double consciousness” to describe the ability of a habitual liar to carry 2 stories in his head at any time: the real story and the desired one. Some simply get addicted to the instant gratification associated with telling the desired, ego-boosting lie.

Other research indicates that many pathological liars have a neurological imbalance: Their verbal skills are high, but there’s a slight impairment in the frontal lobes, the part of the brain that censors speech. It has also been reported that children with such brain disorders as autism have a hard time lying successfully, further making a case for a physical connection.

Often, pathological lying masks problems related to childhood, including trauma, neglect, lack of attention, lack of guidance or failure by parents to set realistic limits. Some researchers suggest that pathological liars often have parents who are pathological liars and that lying was part of the family dynamics.  

Help for problem liars

Understanding why a person lies all the time is key to solving the problem. In that way, pathological lying is similar to such other addictions as overeating, drinking, gambling or shoplifting. What is the person trying to compensate for with his problem behavior, what needs is he trying to fill? To get to the root of pathological lying and to develop an appropriate plan of action, therapy is commonly recommended.

The first step, however, is for the person to admit she has a problem. If you would like to help a pathological liar, you should consult a mental health expert for guidance. An intervention in a proper setting with caring individuals may be in order.

Self-help steps for pathological liars include:

  • making a conscious decision not to lie
  • keeping a written record of all lies, even small ones
  • understanding the “why” behind each lie; for example, is the lie for self-promotion or pain/conflict avoidance?
  • seeking therapy
By Amy Fries
Source: “A Highly Inflated Version of Reality: Researchers Challenge Notions About What Drives the Chronic Liar” by Benedict Carey, Los Angeles Times, March 3, 2003; “Knowing Why People Lie Is Positive Step by Doris Wild Helmering, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Oct. 26, 1998; “Truth About Lies: They Tell a Lot About a Liar” by Richard A. Friedman, MD, New York Times, Aug. 5, 2003; “When Lives Are Spun from Skein of Lies” by Alison Bass, Boston Globe, June 6, 1988

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