Growing up, we are taught that we should not tell lies and that honesty is an admirable trait in a human being. And yet, the average person tells between one to two lies per day and hears between 10 and 200 lies, most of which are harmless. These are the so-called “white lies” – lies that we don’t enjoy telling, but that are often necessary to avoid an embarrassing situation or to hurt someone’s feelings.
For example, when your friend offers you a meal they cooked themselves, you might tell them it’s delicious even though you didn’t really love it. Or, when the hairdresser asks you if you like your new haircut, you half-heartedly answer yes, despite the fact that it’s not at all what you had in mind.
Compulsive lying is different. Also known as pseudologia fantastica or mythomania, compulsive lying can point to a more severe mental health condition and refers to the habit of deceiving others even though no benefit can be drawn from it. Under normal circumstances, people who lie do so because they have a motivation, something to be gained from it.
Meanwhile, pathological liars lie compulsively and for no apparent reason. They can make up intricate stories about their past, which can be extremely frustrating for friends, family, and co-workers because they don’t know when to trust them. For example, a pathological liar can tell others that they’re related to a famous person, that they were in a life-threatening accident, or tell grandiose stories that challenge the wildest movie scripts.
Causes of compulsive lying: is it a symptom or a condition?
Because little research has been done on compulsive lying, scientists don’t know if it’s a symptom or a standalone condition. Compulsive lying isn’t found as a standalone diagnosis in the ICD-10 Classification of Mental and Behavioural Disorders, but it has been associated with Munchausen syndrome (also known as factitious disorder), a mental disorder where the patient lies about being injured or ill.
Compulsive lying can also be a symptom in personality disorders such as narcissistic personality disorder, antisocial personality disorder, and borderline personality disorder, which can lead to challenges with interpersonal relationships.
According to a study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, pathological liars show a 22-26% increase in prefrontal white matter, which is why they could be prone to compulsive lying. People with more white matter have great verbal fluency and thought processing, but they also exhibit problems with empathy and emotions. Studies have also found that pathological liars find it harder to hold down a job and maintain long-term relationships because their lies are eventually discovered.
How to spot a pathological liar
If a person lies frequently, that may not necessarily mean that they are a pathological liar. If their lies are justified (i.e., they want to cover up their mistakes or have something to gain from them), they are normal lies. What makes pathological lies stand out is that they are easy to verify. For example, a pathological liar may tell you that they’ve earned an important award or degree, but a quick fact check will immediately expose them.
Identifying someone as a pathological liar can be difficult, especially if you’ve only just met them. You may believe them for a while, but they eventually reveal themselves in time. The most common signs of compulsive lying include:
The lies have no apparent motive. Pathological liars don’t have anything to gain from their lies.
Pathological liars don’t show any guilt or remorse about their lies.
Pathological liars tell intricate, larger than life stories that sound too good to be true. In these stories, they portray themselves as the heroes or the victims, looking either for admiration or sympathy. Quite often, people can’t help but be fascinated by pathological liars because they are excellent storytellers and performers.
When a pathological liar forgets certain details and contradicts themselves in their stories, they quickly come up with elaborate explanations.
When called out on their behaviour, pathological liars deny everything, becoming defensive or hostile.
Pathological liars are quite bold, and they usually continue lying after they have been caught.
How to cope with a pathological liar
If you have a friend, relative, or co-worker who lies compulsively, coping with them can be hard. You may become angry at them, have difficulty trusting them, or even try everything in your power to make them stop. However, most pathological liars do not want to be helped. Since they do not feel guilt or shame for lying, they don’t stop when others call them out, and they don’t want to seek therapy for this until they experience serious consequences, such as bankruptcy or divorce.
Sometimes, the mentally healthiest thing you can do when spotting a pathological liar is to avoid them – it is perfectly understandable that you don’t want to maintain a relationship where you constantly second-guess the other person.
However, ending all contact may not be possible, especially if they are part of your family or when you work with them and you need the job. In this case, you should learn how to manage conversations with them. Remember that the fact that you are being lied to isn’t personal and that the liar has an underlying mental health condition. Losing your temper and lashing out at the liar won’t help either; when confronted with the lie, they will deny it and become defensive. Instead, try to be kind but firm. End the conversation when they start lying so as to discourage them and, if you are in a position to do so, suggest to them that they might benefit from therapy.