Richard G. Petty, MD

Pathological Lying

“To tell a falsehood is like the cut of a saber; for though the wound may heal, the scar of it will remain.” –Saadi (a.k.a. Sa’di or Sadi or Musharrif-uddin, Persian Poet, c. 1213-1292)

If you are a regular reader, you know that I try to examine issues in five basic realms:  physical, psychological, relational (relationships), subtle and spiritual.  In this post, I am going to show you what is so different about our approach to handling problems by using the example of pathological lying.

I want to use this example because you may well have come across people who are pathological liars and I have seen an extraordinary case myself quite recently. Though none comes close to a young woman whom I once tried to help several years ago. To get to the bottom of her problems, I did background research on her that would have made Sherlock Holmes proud, finally marshaling the evidence in several very thick files of information about fabricated life events, relationships with famous people that never happened and false employment and medical records. When I proudly produced the fruits of several weeks’ work, I was greeted with a sly smile, as she said, “Oh those are only the ones where I used six aliases; you haven’t got the records from the other thirty names that I’ve use.” I was crestfallen.

Pathological lying is also called pseudologia fantastica or mythomania. The lies are usually fluent and plausible and the untrue statements and often grandiose and extreme. Particularly in times of heightened emotion, memory is falsified and distorted and events and circumstances misinterpreted.

In a recent case an individual claimed to have already been pre-selected for the United States Olympic team for 2008, despite being only a good average performer and being unknown to the team selectors. The pathological liar usually believes their false answers: as a rule of thumb, deliberate liars know when they are lying, and pathological liars do not always.

Pathological lying may accompany certain types of personality disorder, particularly borderline, histrionic and antisocial types as well as conduct disorder. It is related to the so-called Munchausen’s syndrome in which people mimic real diseases. There was a famous case in the UK of a man who was subjected to all manner of investigations during his many years of wandering from one hospital to another with all manner of fabricated medical conditions. I was once walking past the Emergency Room when a friend asked me to stop by and look at a patient, telling me that there seemed to be something familiar about him. I’ve always had a decent memory, so as soon as saw him I told the patient and my friend that he was last in hospital on November the 7th the year before, I gave him the alias that he had then used and that he had claimed to be a truck driver from a town in the English Midlands. The patient immediately left the hospital. A shame: it would have been good to know why he did it.

Sometimes people make things up when there is a defect in their ability to reason or judge: it may happen in schizophrenia, as well as a condition called Korsakov’s psychosis that can happen in severe chronic alcoholism and malnutrition. We sometimes still see it in people suffering from older people suffering from cerebral syphilis and in people with AIDS-related dementia. Another related problem is of confabulation in which people with amnesia make up false memories to cover the gaps in their memory.

Physical

There has been recent data from a study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry. The team from the University of Southern California team studied 49 people and found those known to be pathological liars had up to 26% more white matter than others with antisocial personality disorder who were not liars and healthy volunteers. In general, white matter transmits information and grey matter processes it. Having more white matter in the prefrontal cortex may aid lying. This study could help research into areas such as people who feign illness. There is also something else: the findings are in line with previous studies that have shown that children with autism are less capable of lying than other children. Some studies of the brain in individuals with autism show that they have more grey matter than white matter: the opposite pattern to the liars in this study.

This neurological study gets back to the problem of understanding how much of a person’s behavior is under voluntary control and how much is innate. Some distinguished psychiatrists are already suggesting that this supports the notion that pathological lying is a separate psychiatric entity. I’m sure that it’s only a matter of time before this data is introduced by the defense in a criminal case. But is that the end of the question? No, because we also need to consider the other four aspects or domains of a person.

Psychological

Apart from psychotic and organic syndromes, pathological lying may occur in people with very low self-esteem. I have written elsewhere about self-esteem and the data indicating that boosting self-esteem is valueless. What does help is genuine accomplishment from which self-esteem arises. The exception is in those poor souls whose self-esteem seems to be held in a kind of leaky bucket: however much they achieve, they still feel badly about themselves. Though sometimes such people need outside help, in my most recent book I present a number of methods for dealing with the “leaky bucket syndrome.” These involve precise methods for:

  • Identifying and working to re-integrate your ego-fears
  • Avoiding self-consciousness
  • Detaching from the opinions of others
  • The practice of gratitude
  • Pinpointing and following your True Purpose
  • Practicing personal integrity
  • Liberating yourself from negative experiences, cognitions and emotions

Relationships

A recent Anglo-Italian study published in the Journal of Nonverbal Behaviour and reported by the BBC has shown that although most people believe that they can spot liars,when in fact, they cannot. It is commonly believed that liars can be detected by body movements and by avoiding eye contact. But the research shows that liars tended to stay still as they were acutely aware their body language might give them away. The popular perception that when people lie they scratch their nose and play with their hair is also not true. These small “nervous” movements are known as “self-adaptor gestures” that are thought to serve to comfort a person feeling vulnerable or exposed. But instead of giving into these urges, liars try very hard to stay still and are just as likely as an honest person to look the questioner in the eye.

But there were some signs of lying:

  1. Liars use certain types of hand gestures more in order reinforce the point
  2. The use of metaphoric gestures – such as touching the heart to show love and or the holding of hands apart to indicate size – are used 25% more often when people lie
  3. Rhythmic gestures such as repeated pointing to emphasize statements are also used more often by liars

People lie in and about relationships all the time, and it can have a dreadfully corrosive effect on a relationship. But I am strongly opposed to the constant chant of “Get real.” Although it is a worthy ultimate goal, simply to kick away someone’s psychological support system – for the lies will have had some causes – without putting anything in their place, can have a devastating effect.

And if the lies are covering any form of infidelity, stop the activity before it is too late.

I am also reminded of the statement once made by Abraham Lincoln: “No man has a good enough memory to make a successful liar.”

Subtle

How do lies impact the subtle systems of the body? Profoundly. The subtle systems are animated by thought, and if your thoughts are scattered by having to keep track of what you said to whom, or if you are trying to come to terms with the true intent of another person in a relationship, it can drag energy from where it is needed. It is another reason why so many interpersonal difficulties can translate into physical problems. Conversely, working with the subtle systems of the body may help cure people who needlessly lie.

Spiritual

There is a reason why many religious traditions refer to the devil as the Prince of Lies. Lying has always been regarded not just as a moral failing but as a spiritual one as well.

Pathological liars may actually benefit from finding a spiritual orientation. For one thing s certain lying to oneself or lying to others is sure to paralyze any spiritual aspirations.

“This above all: to thine own self be true. And it must follow, as the night the day, thou can’st not then be false to any man.” {Hamlet, Act I, Scene iii}

–William Shakespeare (English Poet and Dramatist, 1564-1616)

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About Richard G. Petty, MD
Dr. Richard G. Petty, MD is a world-renowned authority on the brain, and his revolutionary work on human energy systems has been acclaimed around the globe. He is also an accredited specialist in internal and metabolic medicine, endocrinology, psychiatry, acupuncture and homeopathy. He has been an innovator and leader of the human potential movement for over thirty years and is also an active researcher, teacher, writer, professional speaker and broadcaster. He is the author of five books, including the groundbreaking and best selling CD series Healing, Meaning and Purpose. He has taught in over 45 countries and 48 states in the last ten years, but spends as much time as possible on his horse farm in Georgia.

Comments

7 Responses to “Pathological Lying”
  1. Susan Biddulph says:

    Dear Dr.
    I co-habitate with someone that I think is a pathological liar. He fits all the descriptions. My question is. does this commonly accompany OCD ?
    Thank you

  2. Dear Susan,

    Thank you so much for your note.

    Pathological lying does not commonly accompany OCD, although there is some evidence that they occur together more often than you would expect by chance alone.

    Several years ago a colleague who is one of the world’s foremost experts on impulsivity suggested that both OCD and behaviors – including pathological lying – might all be the result of an imbalance in the amount of serotonin in the frontal lobes of the brain.

    I’ve always found pathological lying is a lot harder to treat than OCD, because most of the liars either don’t want to stop, or fabricate false memories. So they may not realize what they are doing.

    It can be very hard living with someone who has either problem, and I wish you both the very best.

    Kind regards,

    RP

  3. Kathy R says:

    As someone who is divorcing a chronic liar (he has been released from his psychiatrist and the mental health facility AMA, for non-compliance with his treatment plan, has been removed for non-compliance from 5 transitional/halfway houses for mentally ill/susbstance abuse recovery, his disorder is well documented, if not recognized in the DSM-IV), I have found that the only way to interact with this person is to presume that EVERYTHING he says is a lie, and accept it. I began using this approach a little over a year ago (we have been separated nearly 2 years) and was pleasantly surprised at how peaceful my life became when I no longer was disappointed by the lies (rather, I had expected them). I created a life where I did not depend on anything he said, and I now believe that this is the only way I will ever be able to interact peacably with him. I thought I might share this with others.

  4. Diana says:

    Hi Kathy R,
    I am married to someone who is a chronic liar and it centers around finances. Needless to say it has been impossible to live with. I’m wondering what treatments are out there if someone is open to it? Thank you for what you wrote,
    Diana K.

  5. Diana says:

    Hi Kathy R,
    I am married to someone who is a chronic liar and it centers around finances. Needless to say it has been impossible to live with. I’m wondering what treatments are out there if someone is open to it? Thank you for what you wrote,
    Diana K.

  6. jeff says:

    i have worked and dated with a girl for 2 yr and she is a pathological liar big time!…i have caught her so many times i couldnt believe it…she would invite me over to her house and on friday there would always be an exuse why i cant come over…but on monday i would find out from either a coworker or even her own daughter that she did some thing completely different…..why wouldnt she just tell me she was going to a friends house!!! iwould have said ok..no problem….i fell in love with her,,but the last time she ditched me i found out from her daughter that she was with another guy…that really hurt me bad ..i was supposed to go over for a bbq and once again at the last minute i was told some story about her dad coming to take her daughter up to there place…and she will call me in a couple of hours…never heard from her by 9 pm so called her…her daughter answered and told me her mom was up stairs watching a movie wih a guy and that they are going to the zoo on the saturday iwas supposed to be there! i have been there many times and have alot of fun..but that was the last straw…so on monday i asked her why she didnt just be honest with me and she freaked out wouldnt look at me and lied 2 times while we were arguing.. i was crushed that she would not even admit she totally lied and said she didnt think she owed me an apology…she said she didnt like the fact her daughter told me the truth and now acts like i was the problem….very upsetting to say the least….i like my job and would never quit but it is very! awkward now ..people at work are going to notice we dont speak and will ask why….i a scared she will bad mouth me some how and get me in trouble with her lies….any suggestions would be greatly appreciated…..

  7. Thank you very much for each of your comments.

    People who have never encountered a pathological liar are usually incredulous when they hear accounts like these. Yet they are all true. Pathological liars can burn out the people around them including their therapists.

    The biggest problem, and it runs through these accounts, is that most of them do not even realize that they are doing it. It is not the same as people who tell tall stories to try and make themselves look good. Real pathological liars are usually insightless, and so they also refuse treatment.

    I was recently approached by someone who wanted to make a documentary about pathological lying. It was a well though out and extremely worthwhile project. The problem was this. Despite contacting every major expert in the US and the UK, we could not find any pathological liars who would appear on camera. We have made documentaries with every other kind of severe illness, but could not persuade a single pathological liar to cooperate.

    The people who wrote these accounts will be able to relate to that. They will not admit to the problem, and instead blame everyone around them. In a recent case, someone was let go from a job for, amongst other things, lying about credentials, falsifying a CV and then lying on the job. The response was to say that the employer had done all the fabrication!

    If you are not a professional it is usually wise to assume that everything is untrue and work backwards. It is also important to realize that these people have an illness, but that they can drag you down.

    Treatment is extremely difficult. Not only does the genuine pathological liar deny that anything is wrong, but any attempt at dismantling their falsehoods can be profoundly distressing to them. The lies are often defense mechanisms.

    Some experts have reported success with psychotherapy, but the problem is engaging the individual because they do not see the need for help.

    Kind regards,

    RP

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