Pathological Liar Definition

Humans lie all the time; it’s in our nature to tell an occasional fib. But what if lying is a way of life, an obsession? Pathological liars have a history of dishonesty and seemingly can’t regulate the lies coming from their mouths, often destroying social and work relationships.

Pathological liars are persons who excessively lie for no reason, often harming themselves but seemingly unable to stop, irrespective of the damage caused by their dishonest behavior. Pathological lying is a symptom of many mental disorders, such as antisocial personality disorder.

When a person proceeds to produce a constant stream of lies that impacts their normal functioning as a human being, it’s best to seek professional help. The deceitful person might suffer from a mental disorder with excessive lying as a symptom.

Man with long extended nose indicating he's a pathological liar

Definition Of A Pathological Liar

The first psychiatrist to identify pathological lying was Anton Delbruck in 1891 in a study involving five patients. Delbruck coined the Latin phrase “pseudologia fantastica” to describe the disorder.

Pathological is a descriptive adjective indicative of individuals who’re unable to control a part of their behavior through regulation, also referring to the study of a disease or ailment.

One of the first pathological liar definitions was published in a book published in 1915, authored by William Healy and Mary Tenney Healy, called Pathological Lying, Accusation, and Swindling: A Study in Forensic Psychology in which the following definition was given:

  • “Pathological lying is falsification entirely disproportionate to any discernible end in view, engaged in by a person who, at the time of observation, cannot definitely be declared insane, feebleminded, or epileptic.”
  • “Such lying rarely, if ever, centers about a single event; although exhibited in very occasional cases for a short time, it manifests itself most frequently by far over a period of years, or even a lifetime.”
  • “It represents a trait rather than an episode. This has led to the synonyms: mythomania; pseudologia fantastica {phantastica}.”

According to the American Psychological Association – APA – (representative association of Psychologists in North America), a pathological liar is a person who suffers from the following:

  • “a persistent, compulsive tendency to tell lies out of proportion to any apparent advantage that can be achieved. This often occurs among people with alcohol dependence or brain damage, but it is most common among individuals with antisocial personality disorder, who in some cases do not seem to understand the nature of falsehood.”

Psychologists often refer to a pathological liar as an individual suffering from “pseudologia fantastica” or mythomania, which the APA describes as:

  • “A clinical syndrome characterized by elaborate fabrications, which are usually concocted to impress others, to get out of an awkward situation, or to give the individual an ego boost.
  • “Typical examples are the tall tales told by people with antisocial personality disorder, although the syndrome is also found among malingers and individuals with factitious disorders, neuroses, and psychoses.”
  • “Unlike the fictions of confabulation, these fantasies are believed only momentarily and are dropped as soon as they are contradicted by evidence.”

The above definitions of a pathological liar indicate people that lie frequently and extensively for little, or no good reason, in the process harming themselves and others.

According to Professor Christian Hart, Ph.D., the director of the psychological science program and Human Deception Laboratory at Texas Woman’s University, the pathological liar will also lie with intent.

When prompted if pathological liars tell different lies compared to the rest of humanity, Professor Hart answered “Well there’s not a lot of research on that topic. What we can gather from reading through the extensive case literature on pathological liars over the past century is that their lies tend to be somewhat varied.”

Hart states, “We can find some pretty clear cases where they’re allowing for some sort of financial motivation or financial gain. But one of the patterns that we tend to see, perhaps more than you’d see in your typical everyday form of liar, is lies that are aimed at bringing attention to oneself.”

Pathological liars lie without reason and don’t factor in the consequences of their fabricated stories on their lives and the impact on others. The pathological liar will also lie to gain financial or a power advantage, no matter the risk involved. Reminds me of certain businesses and most politicians.

The compulsion to lie is the same as a drug addict’s compulsion to get and use drugs.

Wife with arms crossed looking cold on grey background

Attributes Of A Pathological Liar

If you want to know what attributes to look out for when possibly dealing with a pathological liar, you only need to notice the following characteristics to affirm your suspicions:

  • A pathological liar frequently lies without remorse, or any sign of guilt, indicating an underlying disorder such as antisocial or narcissistic personality disorders.
  • Some pathological liars will feel shame and guilt after lying and don’t fit, for example, the diagnostic criteria for antisocial personality disorder.
  • Pathological liars are seemingly incapable of controlling their untruthful behavior.
  • Pathological liars often struggle to discern between the truth and their web of lies.
  • Pathological liars will stick to their guns, even when the truth is easily verifiable; they will continue lying until being cornered with undeniable proof of their deception.
  • Pathological liars are often people who lack empathy and struggle to show remorse for their lies.
  • Pathological liars will tell inconsistent stories, with narratives changing over time.
  • A pathological liar deceives others by manipulating the truth to give the listener the impression of a more interesting life than actual reality.
  • Pathological liars will tell an untruth even when there’s no compelling reason to do so, often harming themselves more than others.
  • Pathological liars often blow up the truth to epic, grandiose proportions.
  • Pathological liars often have a long history of deception.

The lies will always paint a picture that presents the liar in a favorable light. In other words, the liar sketches a picture where he is portrayed as the hero by telling stories that involve bravery, typically holding a position of great wealth or power.

The other “character” that a pathological liar loves to play is the “victim.” There are two types of pathological liars. The one type believes their own lies, whereas the second type will lie until caught out, often admitting to the deceit only when the proof is presented.

The first type is incapable of admitting defeat irrespective of the presentation of proof to counter their falsehoods, as they truly believe the lies spewing from their mouths.

Do Pathological Liars Suffer From A Mental Health Disorder?

If you share your life with a pathological liar, you might wonder why the person can’t stop lying, especially when the monstrous, elaborate lies being told has no rhyme, reason, or truth behind them.

The result of such deceptive and delusional behavior is often one of overall distrust and ruined relationships following the pathological liar’s wake. The seed of pathological lying is planted early and can last a lifetime.

Seemingly incapable of living a normal life, by telling an occasional lie here and there like the rest of us, you might believe that the pathological liar’s inability to stop fabricating lies is tied to a mental disorder or illness.

The DSM-V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – Fifth Edition) is the “bible” of mental disorders used by clinicians, public health officials, and psychiatry researchers in the United States.

The DSM-V doesn’t classify pathologically lying as a mental disorder by itself, but that doesn’t mean the condition isn’t as severe as other listed conditions in the manual. A person can be a pathological liar without showing any characteristics of other personality disorders.

There’s a push to have it included or recognized as a standalone mental disorder so that the individuals affected can benefit from a dedicated treatment plan covered by medical insurance.

Currently, pathological lying is classified as a symptom of the following mental disorders:

Factors That Create A Pathological Liar

As mentioned above, people struggling with a mental disorder such as antisocial, narcissistic, or borderline personality disorders are more likely to indulge in pathological lying, as deceit plays a major part in the individuals afflicted by these conditions.

Other factors that could potentially play a role in someone becoming a pathological liar are the following:

  • Trauma and maltreatment: Individuals who have suffered abuse and trauma at a young age can revert to lying to cope or distance themselves from the pain experienced.
  • Neurological conditions: Individuals suffering from neurological damage, such as injury to the prefrontal cortex, may suffer from pathological lying as a side effect.
  • Personality traits: People with low self-esteem are more prone to lying than individuals with high self-esteem. Individuals that present high neuroticism are expected to lie more frequently. Attention-seeking personalities use lies to get people to notice and “love” them, aiming for a feeling of importance and relevance.
  • Age: Pathological lying is tied to age in a big way. Across the lifespan of a pathological liar, the lies are expected to increase gradually during childhood before hitting a peak during late adolescence and early adulthood. A slow decline is expected through adulthood, making pathological lying a lifelong struggle if no treatment is sought.

The Impact Of Pathological Lying

If you’ve read the tale of “The boy who cried wolf,” you’ll know that a lie can have serious consequences for all parties involved, even the innocent, generally honest bystanders.

Lies will eventually spin an inescapable web of deceit that’s hard to escape, especially if you’re constantly spinning the web with half-truths and flat-out fabrications.

The impact of obsessive lying on the life of the pathological liar will involve some form of the following destructive patterns and outcomes:

  • Broken personal relationships that end due to trust issues
  • Loss of employment
  • Destroyed reputation
  • Mental health issues
  • Isolation

Types Of Therapy Used To Treat Pathological Liars

No magic pill will fix a pathological liar. Since pathological lying doesn’t have a formal diagnosis, hardly any research-based treatments indicate the most effective treatment type.

Psychotherapy and cognitive behavioral therapy are used to treat pathological liars. The obvious roadblock in treating the pathological liar is if the liar keeps lying to the therapist.

Habit reversal training and differential reinforcement behavior training are also employed to help pathological liars become aware of when they are lying. Behavior training helps the liar to focus on telling the truth in that self-aware moment, no matter the outcome.

The success rate of these treatments will largely depend on the patient being treated and his or her willingness or capability, to be honest. Discovering the “why” behind the lie is an important step in the recovery process of a pathological liar.

The pathological liar can develop anxiety and depression due to all the lying and the negative effect on their lives, which can be treated with anti-depressants and other medication. Treatment for these states of being won’t however cure the pathological liar of his lying disease.

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Pathological liars lie more than the average human being. Often pathological liars will cause tremendous harm by telling excessive lies, destroying personal relationships and employment opportunities, yet they are unable to stop the deceitful behavior.

Treating a pathological liar involves psychotherapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, habit reversal training, and the willingness to become honest with oneself. The last element is especially difficult for a pathological liar.

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