Pathological lying: How do you identify chronic liars?

We all lie sometimes, but there are those who have made it a way of life. Get to know the dubious elite lying elite such as Bernie Madoff and Lance Armstrong.

 Illustrative image of a person keeping a secret.  (photo credit: PIXABAY)
Illustrative image of a person keeping a secret.
(photo credit: PIXABAY)

Everyone has lied before. Sometimes we allow ourselves not to tell the truth, sometimes we use white lies in order not to hurt another person or to live in peace with ourselves. We lie to protect ourselves from a threat or not to feel guilty, to avoid conflicts, to avoid punishment, to justify ourselves, and sometimes just out of impulsiveness. It's part of how the world works.

As long as it doesn't repeat itself compulsively and doesn't distort reality, is it ok?

For some people, it becomes a way of life. In a systematic and repetitive manner, they distort events, inflate stories, change facts, and in general, just lie, big and small, all the time. Meet the small and unique group, the dubious elite unit of lying that includes people like Bernie Madoff and Lance Armstrong - the pathological liars.

What is actually a pathological lie?

Pathological hypocrisy, also called "fantastic pseudology", is a repeated and persistent pattern of behavior in which people simply make up stories and present them as absolute truths and facts, even though there is clear evidence that this is not the case.

In simple and unambiguous language - they lie all the time without having any apparent reason. It's not just a little white lie here and there, or even an obvious lie once in a while. It's a persistent condition that goes beyond "just" dishonesty and enters the compulsive zone, affecting all areas of life, from romantic relationships and professional careers to personal well-being.

 How do pathological liars make lying part of their identity? (ILLUSTRATIVE) (credit: MAARIV)
How do pathological liars make lying part of their identity? (ILLUSTRATIVE) (credit: MAARIV)

An important distinction between "normal" liars and pathological liars, is that in the normal case, the lie has a clear purpose - through the lie, the liar gets a result, even if it seems stupid, it exists. For example, a man will lie about his successes with women or men in order to gain respect from his friends (and if this is his way of gaining respect, then there are some other things to talk about besides lies). He gets something out of lying.

The pathological liar, on the other hand, will lie about anything you can think of, even if they apparently have nothing to gain from the lie. They will lie about big things like the private plane they own to a monthly salary of NIS 10,000, and also about small things like what they had for breakfast. In the first case, it is clear that this is a lie and the second case is simply not interesting. Still, the pathological liar will continue to do so.

They would tell everyone a different story, and they knew it and would get to the point where they cannot be with two people in the room because their web of stories would be exposed and collapse.

The phenomenon was given its name as early as 1891 by a German psychiatrist named Anton Delbork who wanted to describe people who told so many lies that the only way to explain it was that their behavior was the result of mental illness. Pathological lying is described as a trait, not a drive, and in some cases, pathological liars will claim that they cannot control their behavior.

This behavior can appear more likely when it comes to a person suffering from a narcissistic or antisocial personality disorder for example, but it is important to note that this is only a correlational relationship and not a necessary one. Pathological lying can exist even without another disorder.

The causes of pathological lying are quite obscure, despite relatively extensive research. The leading hypotheses are that pathological lies are the result of low self-esteem and false self-perception. These of course can be "dropped" for countless reasons, both biological and environmental.

One study, for example, found that pathological liars have a greater amount of "white matter" (myelin) in the prefrontal cortex and that their thinking is faster and manages to escape control (myelin is a covering that isolates and covers parts of the axons on which nerve signals pass and enables their rapid transmission through jumping from section to section).

An existentialist point of view would be such that these people are trying to create an alternative reality for themselves, one that would seemingly be easier for them to deal with. As mentioned, the web of lies they weave is so extensive and affects all areas of their lives, so that in practice, the result is a reality that is very difficult to deal with without it collapsing.

The pathological liars don't think about the cost of the lie. It doesn't matter, nor do they think about the consequences of their lies on others around them and whether another person will be hurt or not. They also do not lie out of malice, simply out of a very deep habit, and their lies are not limited to a certain area and are not done for a concrete reason. They are very interested in attention and will tell everyone everything they want to hear, regardless of the facts and reality.

How do you handle it?

The treatment of pathological lying may also be difficult and complex. In most cases, the pathological liars will not seek treatment themselves, unless they are forced to (e.g. by court order). Even when they get to treatment, it will be a difficult and long road, because their motivation to change is often low, and this is a significant factor in the success of treatment.

 A woman is holding many masks (ILLUSTRATIVE) (credit: Walla)
A woman is holding many masks (ILLUSTRATIVE) (credit: Walla)

Lying is so deeply embedded in them that it is part of their identity and is not done out of manipulation or evil, and with a high probability, it will also penetrate the treatment itself and sabotage it.

In some cases, cognitive behavioral therapy aimed at identifying and changing ineffective thinking patterns can be helpful. Group therapy has also been found to be effective in some cases, and drug therapy can help reduce symptoms accompanying both lying and changing the treatment by alleviating anxiety that may develop, but it has not been found to be effective in changing and reducing lying in itself.

How can you tell if someone is a pathological liar?

When people lie, there are behavioral changes that can give them away. For example shrugging their shoulders, looking away and not making eye contact, and messing with their hands in the facial area (for example hair, nose, or lips).

There are also physiological changes, most of which you will not be able to notice on your own, such as a flushed face as a result of an increase in blood pressure, an increase in pulse, an increase in the electrical conductivity of the skin, and more. All of these are true of lies in general. But as mentioned, we all lie sometimes, yet most of us are not pathological liars.

So how can you tell if someone is a pathological liar? Here are some signs that can indicate this (but it is important to remember that they can also appear regardless):

  • They tell dramatic and improbable stories
  • Their stories are full of extensive details and ones you didn't ask about at all
  • Their stories change frequently
  • They avoid questions and give vague answers
  • They take ownership of stories that happened to other people
  • They don't care if they are caught in a lie
  • They lie about trivial things that there is no reason to lie about