What is a Pathological Liar and Why do They Lie?

“Pseudologia fantastica” may sound like a psychedelic symphony, but it is actually a medical term for habitual or compulsive lying, also sometimescalled pathological lying. The term has been in use since 1891 and is described as,” falsification entirely disproportionate to any discernible end in view, may be extensive and very complicated, and may manifest over a period of years or even a lifetime”.

The term ‘pathological liar’ seems to be controversial in the literature, with some authors describing a pathological liar as a habitual or compulsive liar while others make a strong case for differentiating compulsive lying from pathological lying. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as, “an individual who habitually tells lies so exaggerated or bizarre that they are suggestive of a mental disorder”. Indeed, some people do view it as a mental illness as it may take over rational judgment and sometimes advances into a fantasy world. However, DSM IV (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, 4th edition), the mental health professionals’ “bible” does not have a specific definition for pathological lying nor considers it a mental disorder. They list it as a symptom, or criterion, for other psychiatric disorders. For example, pathological lying can be symptomatic of Antisocial Personality Disorder (APD, previously and more commonly known as ‘sociopath’) or of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).

Excessive lying is a common symptom of several mental illnesses. An individual with APD will use pathological lying in order to get his own way or benefit from others. There are people with Borderline Personality Disorder who lie in order to gain attention (such as claiming they have been treated poorly). Pathological lying may include these but can also be manifested more as an addiction to lying.

Pathological liars consistently lie about both big and small things, sometimes without any personal gain or reason. The lies are usually obvious and seem pointless to others. They may lie about the most mundane subjects (what they had for dinner, what they wore yesterday) or engage in a complex, detailed and long story. The stories they may tell are not entirely improbable and often have some grain of truth. The individual is not delusional and, if confronted, compulsive liars can admit them to be untrue, albeit somewhat unwillingly. Frequently the lies present the individual in a favorable light; the person comes off as incredibly brave, the best at whatever he or she is talking about or knowing (or being related to) many famous people. The stereotype is that pathological liars are men, but the reality is that they are equally distributed between males and females.

Compulsive lying vs. Antisocial Personality Disorder

A compulsive liar is a chronic or habitual liar. They lie out of habit and don’t seem to be able to control this behavior. It is their normal and reflexive way of reacting; it is an automatic way of responding and is hard to break.  For them, telling the truth is awkward and feels uncomfortable. They will lie about everything-large and small-to avoid feeling this discomfort. When they lie, there is often no personal gain and sometimes their lies will even present them in a negative rather than positive light. Their lies and stories tend to be more consistent when retold. Compulsive liars lie out of habit; they usually know they are lying but seem unable to do anything to stop it.

A ‘sociopath’ or person with APD (Antisocial Personality Disorder) engages in excessive lying in order to get their own way. They are manipulative and usually have a goal in mind when they tell lies. They have little or no concern for others and are not concerned with how their lies affect the other person(s). Individuals with APD can often believe their own lies to the point where they can become reality for them. Because they believe their own lies, they have no difficulty lying about their alleged experiences, incidents or illnesses. They have been known to pass lie detector tests. When confronted, they tend to become defensive and will not admit to telling falsehoods. They also engage in a great deal of exaggeration and continually change their stories. People with APD or NPD (Narcissistic Personality Disorder) are more likely to engage in this type of pathological lying, whereas individuals with ADHD (Attention deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), Bipolar Disorder or Borderline Personality Disorder tend to engage more in the compulsive, chronic lying as mentioned above where there is little personal gain.

Why do they lie?

A compulsive liar appears to develop their habit of lying in childhood. They typically have been exposed to an environment that made it necessary to lie; they lied out of fear- whether to avoid punishment, embarrassment or to prevent themselves from disappointing other significant people in their lives. Lying is like an addiction for them and it helps alleviate their feelings of discomfort. Most of the literature is in agreement that the compulsive liar suffers from insecurity and low self esteem. A compulsive liar does not necessarily suffer from another mental disorder.

APD individuals lie because they have a personality disorder which, debatably, they were born with or developed at a very young age. As expressed previously, they lie in order to gain something and to purposely manipulate others. They believe their lies and live in a false sense of reality.

What are the consequences?

As you can imagine, there are many negative consequences to being a pathological liar whether it stems from APD, other mental or personality disorders, or from being the habitual compulsive liar. Almost all pathological liars suffer failed relationships and friendships due to lack of trust. If the lying becomes more severe it can lead to legal problems such as fraud, impersonation or other serious offenses. The use of pharmaceutical medication has not shown any promise. At this point in time, psychotherapy has been the only method to treat pathological lying and it has had limited success.








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