What Is a Pathological Liar? Definition and Examples

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A pathological liar is an individual who chronically tells grandiose lies that may stretch or exceed the limits of believability. While most people lie or at least bend the truth occasionally, pathological liars do so habitually. Whether or not pathological lying should be considered a distinct psychological disorder is still debated within the medical and academic community.

Normal Lies vs. Pathological Lies

Most people occasionally tell “normal” lies as a defense mechanism to avoid the consequences of the truth (e.g. “It was like that when I found it.”) When a lie is told to cheer up a friend or to spare another person’s feelings (e.g. “Your haircut looks great!”), it may be considered a strategy for facilitating positive contact.

In contrast, pathological lies have no social value and are often outlandish. They can have devastatingly negative impacts on those who tell them. As the size and frequency of their lies progress, pathological liars often lose the trust of their friends and family. Eventually, their friendships and relationships fail. In extreme cases, pathological lying can lead to legal problems, such as libel and fraud

Pathological Liars vs. Compulsive Liars

Though often used interchangeably, the terms “pathological liar” and “compulsive liar” are different. Pathological and compulsive liars both make a habit of telling lies, but they have different motives for doing so. 

Pathological liars are generally motivated by a desire to gain attention or sympathy. On the other hand, compulsive liars have no recognizable motive for lying and will do so no matter the situation at the time. They are not lying in an attempt to avoid trouble or gain some advantage over others. Actually, compulsive liars may feel powerless to stop themselves from telling lies. 

History and Origins of Pathological Lying

While lying—the act of intentionally making an untrue statement—is as old as the human race, the behavior of pathological lying was first documented in medical literature by German psychiatrist Anton Delbrueck in 1891. In his studies, Delbrueck observed that many of the lies his patients told were so fantastically over-the-top that the disorder belonged in a new category he called “pseudologia phantastica.”

Writing in a 2005 issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and Law, American psychiatrist Dr. Charles Dike further defined pathological lying as “falsification entirely disproportionate to any discernible end in view, may be extensive and very complicated, and may manifest over a period of years or even a lifetime, in the absence of definite insanity, feeble-mindedness or epilepsy.”

Traits and Signs of Pathological Liars

Pathological liars are driven by definite, typically identifiable motives such as bolstering their ego or self-esteem, seeking sympathy, justifying feelings of guilt, or living out a fantasy. Others may lie simply to alleviate their boredom by creating drama.

In 1915, pioneering psychiatrist William Healy, M.D. wrote “All pathological liars have a purpose, i.e., to decorate their own person, to tell something interesting, and an ego motive is always present. They all lie about something they wish to possess or be.”

Keeping in mind that they typically tell their lies for purposes of self-gratification, here are some common identifying traits of pathological liars.

  • Their stories are fantastically outlandish: If the first thing you think is “No way!”, you may be listening to a tale told by a pathological liar. Their stories often depict fantastic circumstances in which they possess great wealth, power, bravery, and fame. They tend to be classic “name-droppers,” claiming to be close friends with famous people they may have never met. 
  • They are always the hero or victim: Pathological liars are always the stars of their stories. Seeking adulation, they are always heroes or heroines, never villains or antagonists. Seeking sympathy, they are always the hopelessly suffering victims of outrageous circumstances.
  • They really believe it: The old adage "if you tell a lie often enough, you start to believe it" holds true for pathological liars. They sometimes come to believe their stories so completely that at some point they lose awareness of the fact that they are lying. As a result, pathological liars can seem aloof or self-centered, with little concern for others.
  • They don’t need a reason to lie: Pathological lying is considered a chronic tendency driven by an innate personality trait. That is, pathological liars need no external motivation to tell a lie; their motivation is internal (e.g. seeking adulation, attention, or sympathy).
  • Their stories may change: Grandiose, complex fantasies are hard to tell the same way every time. Pathological liars often expose themselves by frequently changing material details about their stories. They may simply be unable to remember exactly how they told the lie the last time, their exaggerated self-images drive them to further embellish the story with each telling.  
  • They don’t like to be doubted: Pathological liars typically become defensive or evasive when the believability of their stories is questioned. When backed into a corner by facts, they will often defend themselves by telling even more lies.

Pathological Liar Key Takeaways

  • Pathological liars habitually lie in order to gain attention or sympathy.
  • The lies told by pathological liars are typically grandiose or fantastic in scope.
  • Pathological liars are always the heroes, heroines, or victims of the stories they concoct.

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