Definitions and research about pathological lying has existed in psychiatric and psychology circles for over a century. The odd and annoying phenomenon of fabricating attracts interest. Most people know at least one habitual liar—an uncle, a boss, an in-law. We listen, we roll our eyes, we move on; unless, of course, they are an intimate part of our daily lives, then their disgusting dishonesty wreaks havoc on our own functioning.
Fibbing isn’t uncommon, science suggests majority of us let a few whoppers pass through our lips—daily. Yet, there is a small but notable percentage of people that take falsification to an extreme. Their pervasive deceptions swell beyond occasional self-serving manipulation of facts become pathological. These prevaricators lose contact with reality (or purposely choose to). Extreme fabrication impacts life, draining vitality from wellness. In a crazed defunct reality, the liar hurts themselves and those around them.
I expected pathological lying to have a DSM-V classification—it doesn’t. Pathological lying is, however, a characteristic of many DSM diagnoses. Unfortunately, without a unifying definition research is sparse and divided. Understandably, relying on self-reporting from pathological liars would, perhaps, lead to skewed data. Further complicating the matter, treatment, similar to pathological narcissism, has negligible success. It is simply hard to grow in fabricated realities.
We must live with liars in our families, employment, and in prominent political positions. Naively, we believe we can cure them. We can’t. If we catch an insidious liar red-handed, holding the stolen goods, obviously guilty, we can’t expect an apology. They ignore the obvious, create a stupid myth, and then challenge our sanity by gaslighting us into confusing self doubt.
Early Observations of Pathological Lying
Pathological lying has been referred to as pseudologia fantastica, mythomania, and deception syndrome. Pseudologia fantastica originally appeared in 1891 when a German physician, Anton Delbrück, observed that some of his patients told lies that were significantly abnormal and disproportionate to reality.
Is it Lying or Pseudologia Fantastica?
Pathological lying is typically defined with several core elements: a long history, frequent and repeated with no apparent psychological motive or external benefit and impairs healthy functioning.
Drew A Curtis and Christian L. Hart suggest a definition that includes, “persistent, pervasive, and often compulsive patterns of lying behavior that leads to clinically significant impairment of functioning in social, occupational, or other areas; causes marked distress; poses a risk to the self and others; and occurs for longer than six months” (2020).
Pseudologia fantastica is “significantly different than mere lying,” explains the authors of a 2018 paper on the topic. “Lying involves three main elements: awareness of the false statement, intent to deceive, and a preconceived goal or purpose” (Frierson & Joshi). Pseudologia fantastica is “disproportionate falsifications that may be extensive and complicated, present over a period of years or a lifetime, and with no external gain or motive (2018).
Why Do We Lie?
Lying, even among pervasive fibsters, is not the same. Indeed, people lie for complex reasons. Some lies are conscious manipulations, others habitual defenses.
Lying Provides an Immediate Reward
Curtis and Hart recruited 623 people to complete a questioner about lying behavior. They concluded, “pathological lying exists in a small percentage of people, for whom it causes significant distress, impaired functioning, and danger.” Among their research subjects, 13% considered themselves or others considered them as pathological liars. Based on Curtis and Hart’s definition, we would expect that pathological liars are a much smaller group than 13% of the population.
Pathological liars are not the only liars. Many people suffer from habitual and chronic fibbing. Charles C. Dike wrote, “Lying behaviors that mimic pathological lying have been described in certain personality disorders and in factitious disorder” (2008).
The passive-aggressive attack often incorporates poor me narratives that conveniently reorder facts to create a narrative designed to elicit sympathy. These narratives range from simple to full on phantom diseases. There is also the mythologist that creates stories, presented as fact, but have grown to ginormous fibs.
Habitual lying, no matter the definition, typically share the characteristic of immediate small rewards in exchange for long term growth. Whether flagrant whoppers or simply blurring of reality, when told often enough, we lose contact with reality—growth and relationships suffer. Our growth, actualization, and connection all require consistent interaction with truth—the facts. When our realities become the work of a professional mythologist, our judgement wanes, we lose a continuous sense of self, and our unpredictability prevents intimacy.
Lying to Ourselves
Martha Beck wrote in her popular book Finding Your Own North Star that, “I found that all my interviews regarding the nature of the subjects addictions, had one thing in common: they lied to themselves. Obviously, they lied about their addictive behavior, but they hadn’t become liars because they were addicts; on the contrary, they’d turned to addictions because they’d been telling themselves lies, often since childhood” (2002, p. 151).
Our fantastic fictional world prevents real achievement. However, liars are not always failures. Some succeed in stunning fashion. They fool themselves and pull countless others into their web of deceit. American lore has always graciously looked upon the motivational aphorism “fake it ‘til you make it,” however, some “fake it” so well they never are motivated to actually “make it.”
While this exposé will have little impact on the pathological liar, hopefully, some of us less prolific liars will take a few minutes to examine our communications (with others and ourselves). Consequently, our examinations often motivate realigning of objectives, courageous facing of the truth, and abandoning ego-protecting fabrications so we can get back to building better relationships and better lives.
Beck, M. (2002). Finding Your Own North Star: Claiming the Life You Were Meant to Live. Harmony; Reprint edition.
Curtis, D. A. & Hart, C. L. (2020) Pathological Lying: Theoretical and Empirical Support for a diagnostic Entity.
Dike, C. C. (2008) Pathological Lying: Symptom or Disease.
Frierson, Richard L., Joshi, Kaustubh G. (2018) Implications of Pseudologia Fantastica in Criminal Forensic Evaluations: A Review and Case Report. Journal of Forensic Sciences 63.3 976-979.