What You Need To Know About Pathological Liars

by JR Thorpe
Walt Disney Productions

We sometimes throw around the term "pathological liar" to mean somebody who has a convenient relationship with the truth (cough, cough, President Trump). That's not actually what the term means, though. Pathological lying occupies a different category altogether, one in which lies are so extensive, so perpetual, and so well-entrenched that they go on for years and can involve anything, even something as minor as the color shoes they're wearing. This isn't a person fibbing to get out of a parking ticket. It's somebody whose lying has stepped way outside the bounds of normal human behavior and into intriguing new territory — indeed, pathological liars may not even always know they're lying.

There are a lot of unanswered questions about pathological liars, partially because they're so intensely rare; a study of 1,000 juvenile repeat offenders found that only about eight showed signs of pathological lying, and that was already a skewed view of the population in general. Do pathological liars really believe what they're saying? What do they get out of it, particularly if their lies keep getting them in trouble? Are they suffering from other problems, or is pathological lying a disorder all of its own?

It's an interesting world, and one with its own arguments and problems. If you do find a pathological liar (or if you are one), do everybody a favor and direct them to the nearest psychologist so we can know more about this fascinating and bizarre phenomenon.

It's Debated Whether Or Not Pathological Liars Believe Themselves

Pathological liars, or people suffering from pseudologia phantastica, are at the center of a lot of arguments in psychological circles, the most pressing of which is this: do pathological liars actually believe the lies they construct, or are they aware of their falsehoods? The answer has serious implications for treatment and assessment, and it's one that's been on the table since the behavior was first described in the late 19th century by the German doctor Dr. Anton Delbruck.

The essence of the debate is whether or not the pathological liar thinks logically about his or her lies, and is able to acknowledge them as lies. Dr. Charles Dike, writing on the controversy in the Psychiatric Times, explains that pathological liars may "believe their lies to the extent that the belief may be delusional," leading to its alternate name as "wish psychosis;" but he also notes that research has shown that challenging pathological liars repeatedly can in fact get them to admit that their lies are fabrications, which shows that, on some level, they may be well aware of what they're doing.

There are a few different ideas about what's actually happening here. One, put forward by addiction specialist Dr. Howard Foreman, is that pathological lying may be rooted in a wish to avoid shame, and escalates beyond any logical reversal to a point where believing is easier than confronting reality. However, it's also been observed that guilt, shame, and the negative reactions of others don't often have much effect on the pathological liar's behavior. It's a definitional question: do we exclude people who genuinely believe their lies from the "pathological" category because they're clearly delusional? Is it just about people being manipulative?

One way this debate is currently playing out in the public forum is in discussions of President Trump. A psychologist, asked by Mic about whether Trump fits the profile of a pathological liar, said no, because he is "deliberate in his fabrication" and, importantly, seems to "know what he's saying is wrong." His presumed awareness of his own lying excludes him, in this perspective. If pathological liars don't have to be deluded, though — if they just have to be compulsive — then possibly we might have to reassess.

Their Lying May Actually Be Counterproductive To Their Own Interests

The essence of pathological lying is that it deviates from the practice of normal lying. We all lie; we tell fibs to get out of lunch with that person we don't like, to soothe a friend that they don't look that bad in yellow, to make excuses for being late for work. It's a natural part of human behavior. In pathological liars, however, the practice has no limits. They may lie without reason, for no benefit, and often to the extent that they don't get any good from it at all.

This counter-productivity is what demonstrates, for some experts, that this is a compulsive behavior that isn't motivated by external factors (like an angry boss), but by inner ones (some kind of need to constantly fib even if there's no earthly reason to do so). A person who lies persistently to manipulate others for the sake of their own ends may not necessarily be pathological; they may just be a horrible person with no respect for the wellbeing of others. (Narcissists and sociopaths are known to lie in this fashion.)

A person who lies constantly about things that can be really easily proven wrong, in ways that have no benefit and actually get them into trouble? That's pathological. Again, though, this comes down to definitions, and for some, all persistent lying behavior gets the "pathological" label, manipulative and intended or not.

The Lies Are Often Part Of Extensive Narratives

In a 2005 discussion of pathological lying in the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry & The Law, the researchers made a few definitional points that make something clear: it's not just about a few weird lies here and there. The pathological liar creates a world out of lies:

While no consensus definition for pathological lying currently exists in the literature, the identified functional elements of the phenomenon are: the repeated utterance of untruths; the lies are often repeated over a period of years, with the lies eventually becoming a lifestyle; material reward or social advantage does not appear to be the primary motivating force but the lying is an end in itself; an inner dynamic rather than an external reason drives the lies, but when an external reason is suspected, the lies are far in excess of the suspected external reason; the lies are often woven into complex narratives.

The narratives of pathological lying are one of its foundational elements, as defined by a famous paper by Healy & Healy. A pathological liar's lies, they argue, are not simple one-offs; they're part of a grand structure of lies, told over many years and in many ways, some of which might be inconsistent with one another, but which in general tell a big story. They won't just be an airline pilot, they'll have trained in XYZ, flown over ABC, and represented many other untruths that take part in the narrative.

Pathological Liars Appear To Have Brains With Different Structures

If you're wondering if pathological liars might not be right in the head, the answer is an interesting one. A study of pathological liars using brain scanning technology in 2005 found that they actually show substantial differences in various brain matter to people who lie occasionally and in normal ways. They had 22 to 26 percent more prefrontal white matter and a 36 to 42 percent lower ratio of white matter to grey matter, and that provides an intriguing explanation of what might be happening in a pathological liar's brain.

The development of prefrontal white matter in the brain is associated with our capacity for deception; as this bit of our brain develops over our childhood, we become more able to lie successfully. It's basically a creative development. As for the ratio, the researchers have a suggestion: it "may also predispose to a general antisocial disinhibited tendency which, coupled with increased white matter, results in excessive lying."

We know that in people with more grey matter, there are higher levels of inhibition in behavior, so this does make sense. Pathological liars are too creative with not enough behavioral controls, at least on the neurological level. A single pathological liar underwent extensive tests in 2011, and the scientists determined that their prefrontal cortex was also malfunctioning in an interesting way, so it's not necessarily about healthy white and grey matter, either.

Pathological Lying May Be Linked To Other Disorders

Whether or not pathological lying is a disorder on its own, or if it's always associated with other psychological issues, is an open question. The researcher Katie Treanor has an interesting list of possible disorders it's often been tied to, including malingering and factitious disorder (pretending to have a disease), confabulation (having false memories), Ganser’s Syndrome (where people mimic having an actual mental illness), and other more well-known psychological issues like antisocial, histrionic or narcissistic personality disorders. One strong contender, she notes, is narcissism: pathological lying is for some psychologists about a lack of morality, in which people try to "master experiences of powerlessness and regulate self-esteem."

In the psychological reference book Encyclopedia of Deception, Timothy Levine points out that pathological lying does appear on its own without attending disorders, and that it can be both a symptom (of something like factitious disorder) and its own problem. As of now, though, the Diagnostic Statistical Manual doesn't give it a solitary definition. One thing's clear, though: if you encounter a person who lies constantly for no apparent reason, things are not quite right.