Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Lying Liars: Normal versus Pathological Liars

I have a strong aversion to habitual liars.  I'm talking about people who make up stories about the places they've been, the things they've done, and the feats they've accomplished.  These are people who lie about stupid things - for example, they tell you they grew up in Seattle when they've never seen the West Coast.  I don't like having to dig for the truth when I talk to someone.  I don't like having to view everything someone tells me with suspicion.  And most of all, I don't like being lied to.  Discovering you've been deceived is painful.  You feel angry, hurt, and betrayed.  You feel embarassed about being played for a fool.  You second guess yourself and your judgment. 

But are habitual liars - pathological liars - all that different from the rest of us?  Everyone lies.  We may, as a society, condemn lying.  We may say we value honesty.  And maybe we do.  But we still lie. 

Apparently, lying is normal.  We all do it and most of us do it quite frequently.  Studies have shown that the average adult tells at least one lie per day.  Mostly we lie to benefit ourselves (according to DePaulo, Kashy, Kirkendol, Wyer, and Epstein).  We lie to enhance our reputations, to avoid undesirable consequences, or to gain an edge over others.  Perhaps this is a natural consequence of individualism.  If the needs of the individual are primary then anything that benefits the individual over the group is useful.  Since lying often gives the individual an advantage over the whole, the individual sees lying as acceptable, or at least justifiable. 

While most of our lies are self-centered, we also lie to benefit others.  We do this mostly to spare the feelings of people we love ("That dress looks great on you," "This dinner you made is delicious," "I love the gift you gave me").  When we lie about our feelings we generally do so to benefit others and typically pretend to feel more positively than we actually do. 

Saxe points out that lying is often situationally determined.  Circumstances that increase the likelihood of lying include those in which the risk of getting caught lying is low, the potential benefits of lying are high, and the potential consequences of being honest are severe. 

So if lying is such a widespread practice, at what point does it become "pathological?"  Dike explains the difference between "normal" and "pathological" lying.  Oridnary lying is goal directed; it is done for a specific purpose with a desired outcome in mind.  Pathological lying has no identifiable purpose or, if it does, the lie is extremely disproportional to the benefit expected to be gained.  Sometimes the lies are even damaging to the person telling them.  For a pathological liar the benefit is psychological; lying in itself is rewarding. 

What kind of person enjoys telling lies?  Bursten suggests those with a "manipulative personality."  According to Bursten, someone with a manipulative personality has a fragile self-image.  He attempts to bolster this image by proving to himself that he is "better" than others.  By telling lies and getting away with them, he gains a sense of power over those he deceives.  He feels a level of contempt for his victims for lacking the ability to detect his deception.  This enables him to feel superior. 

Before we judge the pathological liar too harshly we should first consider the following.  Pathological liars may not be able to control their lying.  Some experts suspect lying is compulsive for the pathological liar.  He lies in spite of himself; he cannot help it.

There may also be something different about the brains of pathological liars.  Several studies have demonstrated a relationship between pathological lying and increaed white matter in the prefrontal cortex. 

So what have I learned about pathological liars?  Mostly I've learned that we don't know much.  There is a lack of consensus among experts about how even to define the term "pathological liar."  We don't know if pathological lying is a disorder unto itself or if it exists only as a symptom of other disorders.  We aren't sure how much, if any, control pathological liars have over their lying.  We don't even know if pathological liars always know they are lying! 

What I do know is my own preference, which is to be lied to as rarely as possible. 


  1. I have a now ex-boyfriend who was an expert at lying, but not by telling outright lies. He seems like a basically good guy, but he definitely has intimacy issues, which can only really be seen in the things he says. He acted like he wanted to be in a relationship, and would do many of the right things, but then he would say things that would leave me scratching my head, wondering what was going on.

    It was only after talking to a therapist, and doing my own research, that I learned that there are many forms of lying, like lying by omission, twisting the truth, and being vague. He used all three any time it came to talking about something he didn't want to discuss, and it was a form of manipulation to keep me in the relationship, but on his terms. I always wondered if he could not hear what he was saying, or did he think I was so stupid that I didn't hear what was underneath the words?

    After we broke up, he told people that I just got mad about something he said, and that I left, and that he didn't know what was going on. Partially truth, but a real twist of the truth, and he left out a whole bunch of details.....all so he looks like the victim, and I look like the bad guy.

    I don't know how much lying normal people do, but I strive not to, and I don't find it to be that difficult to be truthful, especially when it comes to my important relationships. The whole situation was very upsetting to me. I don't understand it.

    1. I'm sorry that happened to you. Those feelings you had -- feeling upset, being left scratching your head -- that's exactly what makes me want to avoid habitual liars. Who wants to be around someone who brings out these feelings?

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