What is a Compulsive Liar?

Comedian Jon Lovitz did a bang-up job portraying a compulsive liar in the old Saturday Night Live sketches. But if you’re in a relationship with a pathological liar, you know that it’s a mental disorder and no laughing matter.

What Is Compulsive Lying?

Compulsive liars have a disorder called pseudologia fantastica. The components break down to false + word + imagine, a fancy way of saying “whopper of a lie.” People who have the condition are compelled to habitually lie. They require no reason and lie regardless of circumstances or consequences.

Not only do they lie, but they assume others are lying to them. Pathological liars mistrust everyone, especially the people closest to them. They go all out with interrogations and fact-finding missions even when it’s plain that they are being told the truth.

While their elaborately spun lies may be fantastical, they never go beyond the impossible. Compulsive liars aren’t deluded or psychotic unless their illness is coupled with another mental problem. Their storytelling is chronic, not set off by events in which telling the truth would get them into trouble or make them look bad. When confronted, they are likely to admit that they lied.

In fact, their lies usually make them look good. They may portray themselves as courageous heroes or rich, powerful men. A woman might convince you she was an innocent victim to earn your sympathy. Compulsive liars are often name-droppers, pretending to know famous or important people. Their lies are always to their own benefit and no one else’s.

Studies reveal that:

  • The disorder usually takes hold around age 16
  • Men or women may be compulsive liars, but slightly more are women
  • Compulsive liars have average or above average intelligence and especially sharp verbal skills
  • Chronic liars are smooth and self-assured
  • Thirty percent of compulsive liars had a volatile home life and usually had a parent or family member with mental problems
  • Forty percent have an abnormality in the central nervous system, such as infection, epilepsy, head trauma or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder
  • One out of every 1,000 juvenile repeat offenders is a pathological liar

It’s All in Your Mind

Almost everyone tells a white lie now and then. Maybe you invent a flat tire to avoid being reprimanded at work. Maybe you would hurt your best friend’s feelings if you told her the truth about her new hair color. Perhaps you lie now and then to fit in with a group. Your wife may go through the roof if she knew how much your new tool set really cost.

These kinds of lies have external motivations; they are dictated by circumstances and cooked up on the spot. They often needle your conscience until you come clean and apologize. Even people who lie often to get out of jams aren’t necessarily compulsive liars. They manipulate circumstances to their advantage and have weak moral character, but they don’t lie for no reason.

Pathological liars have internal compulsions to lie; there are clinically recognized reasons for their dishonesty. It’s a way of life to them, second nature. According to a 2005 study published by the British Journal of Psychiatry, the morality of their deceit is never even considered.

Why Does Brain Matter … Matter?

Scientists have discovered that compulsive liars have more white matter and less gray matter in their brains, specifically the prefrontal cortex, than people without the condition. The prefrontal cortex plays a vital role in sound decision-making and appropriate behavior.

This suggests that they are predisposed to lying and can’t help themselves. Some researchers, however, believe that their habitual lying altered their brain chemistry. Through long-term repetition—like rejecting the truth and embracing deceit—it’s possible to make permanent changes to the brain.

In any case, all agree that it’s a mental disorder that may have genetic, biological or environmental roots.

How Is Compulsive Lying Diagnosed?

Reaching a diagnosis is tricky. The problem doesn’t yet have its own listing in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. For now, it’s considered a symptom of a number of other problems, such as antisocial behavior, obsessive-compulsive disorder or psychopathy. Habitual lying often accompanies other mental illness. It might initially be mistaken for false memory syndrome, in which patients truly believe the events in their stories took place.

Recently, though, psychiatrists have pointed out that most chronic liars don’t exhibit signs of OCD, psychopathy or other illnesses. They seem normal in all other aspects.

Ongoing studies may finally prove that pathological lying is a condition unto itself.

How Can You Tell if Someone Is a Pathological Liar?

Hooking them up to a lie detector won’t do any good. Polygraphs only measure physiological changes that indicate stress or guilt, like increases in heart rate or blood pressure. Chronic liars don’t have those reactions. Being deceitful doesn’t prick their consciences as it would yours.

If you suspect a friend or loved has a problem, you may use these tests:

  • Is the story always changing? Do details often differ with each telling?
  • Do her stories always make her look good? Do they bring her a lot of attention, sympathy or acclaim?
  • Is his life fairly ordinary? Would he lie to seem more interesting or important?
  • Does she tell different versions of events to different people? Do her accounts ever pit friends against each other?

Ask your friend to repeat a story a day or two later. Compare the accounts to see if anything is different. Count up the characters with each telling. If the “cast” keeps getting bigger and bigger, if the tale becomes more and more sensational, it is probably a lie.

What Next?

As anyone who has lived with a chronic liar can tell you, it’s very much like living with an addict: He or she simply can’t stop his behavior. The more he lies, the more he feels compelled to. It’s the only comfort to him, the only thing that makes him feel normal.

Don’t continue to enable the liar or become codependent. Stage an intervention and directly confront him. Suggest treatment and promise your support.

Can Pathological Lying Be Treated?

Psychotherapy is currently the only effective treatment, but the habitual liar must first admit he has a problem. If he sincerely desires to change, chances are good that he can manage his disorder with cognitive behavioral therapy and frequent counseling. Oftentimes, underlying issues are discovered and addressed.

Ongoing sessions to monitor progress will set him on the road to recovery. With hard work, support and encouragement, there is hope that he’ll stop lying.

While compulsive lying makes great fodder for comedy, it destroys reputations, careers and relationships. It could result in divorce or legal problems.

There is only one remedy for lying — truth. In the words of Jesus Christ, “The truth will set you free.”

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