Lying is a common behavior, and everyone does it. As long as we’ve been communicating with each other, we’ve been telling lies. Most people tell white lies, meaning they tell innocent lies that don’t have any severe consequences if discovered.
It’s uncommon for people to tell significant lies with severe consequences unless they’re doing so to protect themselves from punishment, embarrassment, or damage to their ego and reputation. However, some people exhibit problematic lying behavior.
They lie more frequently compared to other people, and they do so with malicious intent. These “pathological liars” represent less than 3% to %5 of the US population. However, when we look at that number in the populace, it means that 7 to 10 million people exhibit this behavior.
This post explains why people lie anthologically. We’ll look at the reason for this behavior, its characteristics, and why pathological liars keep lying.
Understanding Pathological Lying
The German psychiatrist Anton Delbrück (1862 – 1944) coined the term “pseudologia phantastica.” He created it to describe individuals who told such outrageous lies that the only explanation for the behavior was that they had some underlying mental health disorder.
Pathological lying is the most severe form of lying and is most common in people with antisocial personality disorders (ASPD). People with sociopathic and psychopathic tendencies often develop pathological lying behaviors to help them manipulate the people in their social and professional circles.
Pathological lying behavior may or may not impact the individual’s performance at work or their relationships with others, depending on the underlying mental health problem. For instance, if a person develops psychopathy and a tendency to lie pathologically, they might not feel any qualms about people discovering their lies, feel no guilt about lying, and believe their lies themselves.
People who develop sociopathy due to their ASPD may also lie pathologically but tend to lie more in a storytelling role. They’re easier to spot, and they might realize that their lying behavior is wrong or feel short-lived guilt surrounding their lies.
Psychiatrists don’t always agree on the definition of pathological lying, what causes the behavior, or why people adopt it. However, they agree that the condition usually develops because the person has an underlying “pathology” causing the behavior.
Mental Health Conditions Affecting Pathological Liars
So, what underlying pathologies cause people to develop pathological lying behavior? According to psychiatrists, the following mental health disorders may result in a person becoming a pathological liar.
The most common cause of pathological lying behavior comes from people with Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD). ASPD is also a common trait in sociopaths and psychopaths. These individuals are the most challenging pathological liars to detect and the most malicious. They tend to lie for status, money, manipulation, and sympathy.
Pathological liars may also suffer from Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). These people may develop the behavior due to abandonment issues or rejection and lie to prevent it from occurring in future relationships.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) also contributes to the development of pathological lying behavior. These individuals may lie to get others to bend to their whim, avoid punishment, bolster their self-image, or protect their false sense of self.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) may turn people into pathological liars. These individuals lie to avoid friends or family noticing their behavior and worrying about them.
Substance Use or Impulse Control Disorder
People with mental health conditions may develop substance abuse problems with drugs or alcohol. They usually develop elaborate lies to cover up their habits or symptoms of abuse.
This disorder is a form of dementia affecting the temporal and frontal regions of the brain, causing changes in language and behavior, leading to the onset of pathological lying.
Also known as “Factitious Disorder,” people with Munchausen Syndrome frequently lie about their health, claiming that they or people they know are sick.
Other Psychological Reasons for the Development of Pathological Lying Behavior
- Childhood neglect or abuse.
- Low self-image and low self-esteem.
People that exhibit pathological lying behavior may also show the following character traits.
- A lack of empathy.
- Inappropriate or improper social behavior.
- Loss of insight into their behavior or that of others.
- Changes in food and beverage preferences.
- Boredom or agitation.
Can Childhood Trauma Cause Pathological Lying?
Some pathological liars develop the behavior as children due to childhood trauma, such as neglect or abuse. They start lying to protect their abuser, producing a condition known as “Stockholm Syndrome,” where they think that protecting the abuser might cause them to stop, or they might become sympathetic towards the source of abuse or neglect.
Or they might develop pathological lying behavior as a coping mechanism to help them deal with their situation. Children may also learn this behavior as a means to get what they want from others. They continue this behavior into adolescence and eventually into adulthood, where they become pathological liars.
What Motivates Pathological Liars?
Experts think pathological liars have two motivators driving them to continue the behavior. The first is material gain. They lie to deceive others out of money, assets, items, sexual partners, etc.
The second motivator for the behavior is attention. They’ll tell lies about stories to impress others. These lies often include them talking about how they have relationships with famous people or how they completed heroic tasks.
Typically, they’ll lie to impress others or gain sympathy from them. They may tell stories that present them as a victim in the tale to gain acceptance from others. These lies may involve instances of abuse, being shot or kidnapped, or being abandoned.
Why Do Pathological Liars Lie?
Pathological liars lie strategically, not at random. Compulsive liars lie all the time, and they might do so without any purpose. However, the pathological liar lies for a specific purpose. These individuals seem to use a trifecta of motivations to justify their lying behavior and start telling lies.
These motivations can include the following.
- They see a benefit from telling a lie.
- The risk of being caught in a lie is minimal or easy to mitigate.
- They can justify the reason for lying.
Pathological liars understand the lie’s utility, allowing them to achieve a goal. They perceive that they won’t be able to accomplish this goal by acting honestly with others, so they choose to lie to stand a better chance of getting what they want in a situation.
Pathological liars might see opportunities presented to them to lie that normal people don’t notice. Most normal people assume that the potential rewards they receive through honest actions are enough to stop them from considering lying to get what they want in life. However, pathological liars see repeated opportunities to use lying to gain things they want.
Pathological liars don’t foresee the risk in their lies. They don’t think of the consequences if they’re caught by others when lying. Most normal people won’t lie when they feel there’s a risk they’ll be caught and punished for their transgression.
Pathological liars assume they’ll get away with lying, so they have nothing holding them back from their lying behavior. Or they might see the risk of being caught as tolerable or easy to mitigate, making it worth the risk to tell a lie.
Most people feel bad after they tell a lie. They experience internal feelings of guilt and shame that drive them to reveal their dishonesty or prevent them from telling lies. However, the pathological liars underlying pathology may prevent them from experiencing these feelings.
As a result, they don’t have a moral compass holding them back from telling lies. They don’t experience the same shame or guilt for telling lies; for them, it’s as easy as telling the truth. Pathological liars find ways to justify their lying behavior, and sometimes, they may believe their lies.
Pathological liars are adept at making internal moral adjustments to how they perceive right and wrong. The thought of right and wrong doesn’t occur to them, making them immune to moral judgments of their behavior.
Some experts suggest that pathological liars may feel some sense of guilt after telling a lie, but they don’t experience it during the moment when they tell a lie.
What are the Signs of a Pathological Liar?
Pathological liars may exhibit the following behaviors indicating their condition.
- They lie about minor events in their life.
- They lie to manipulate and persuade others.
- They don’t feel any fear of being caught in a lie.
- They experience a thrill when they successfully lie to another person or group.
- They continue lying even if people confront them about the untruth.
- They make minor changes to their storyline when telling a lie a few weeks later.
- They don’t show any signs of anxiety when telling lies.
- They get defensive if confronted about lying.
- They deflect or misdirect when confronted.
Are Pathological Liars Hard to Spot?
It’s challenging to spot a pathological liar. Most of them are very adept at the behavior, and they know the body language and verbal cues associated with the lying response. For instance, pathological liars may purposely look a person straight in the eye when they lie because they know that the natural reaction is to look away.
Pathological lies don’t make up fantastic stories like compulsive liars. Instead, they keep their lies believable and purposeful. Pathological liars lie strategically and are very persuasive and cunning, making them very difficult to spot, even when using a polygraph exam.
Do Pathological Liars Believe Their Lies?
Unlike compulsive liars who know they are lying and understand the difference between right and wrong, pathological liars often believe their lies. This isn’t true in all cases of pathological lying. However, the most advanced forms of the condition seem to have this delusionary effect on the individual.
Pathological liars convince themselves that what they say is true, even though it isn’t. Other people they meet may discover their lies and confront them. However, pathological liars are adamant in their belief that they will argue their position.
For this reason, the pathological liar is often hard to spot in a lie detector test. Their brain doesn’t experience the same feedback loop between the pre-frontal cortex and the amygdala that initiates feelings of guilt when we lie. As a result, they can convince themselves they’re telling the truth when they’re lying.
They don’t feel any shame or guilt around their lies and don’t activate the “fight-or-flight” (FoF) response under questioning during a lie detector test. Normal people will launch the FoF autonomously when they lie during a polygraph exam. The examiner uses this response to indicate deception in the examinee.
However, since the pathological liar may not have any feelings of guilt or shame around their lying behavior, they can lie in the test and not show a physiological response.
Why Do Pathological Liars Keep Lying – Key Takeaways
There is no clinical diagnosis for a pathological liar. The word “pathology” indicates that the person has an underlying mental health issue causing their behavior.
Some experts say the typical pathological liar lies five or more times every day. They believe that if someone tells this many lies daily for longer than six months, they qualify as a pathological liar.
There’s a significant difference between a compulsive and a pathological liar. They both lie frequently, but the pathological liar is more inclined to do so with malicious intent. They’re also more prone to believe their lies and don’t have the same neural response to lying as normal people.
Compulsive liars keep lying because their behavior becomes habitual, and they feel more comfortable lying than telling the truth. Pathological liars keep lying because they discover they can use the behavior as a tool to get what they want out of people and from life.
Some people develop pathological lying behavior as children, but others may slowly graduate into the behavior, usually in their teens.
It’s challenging to rehabilitate a pathological liar. There’s no medication to treat the condition; the pathological liar will have to attend therapy to rehabilitate their behavior.
However, there’s a high chance they’ll lie to their therapist, delaying their progress in the therapy room. Some may never rehabilitate from their behavior.