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By now, it's almost impossible you haven't heard about Rachel Dolezal, the former NAACP Spokane president who pretended to be black — Afro and all — for a whole decade before she was outed as Caucasian by her own, white, parents. You may also have seen the film Catch Me If You Can, in which a very young Leonardo DiCaprio played the role of Frank Abagnale, a real-life person who successfully pretended to be an airline pilot, doctor, and prosecutor before he even turned 19.
If you're less fortunate, you may have been touched by someone who pretended to have cancer, "used to date a famous person", or otherwise contructed their whole past and personality out of thin air. These people, who build their whole lives on a card house of lies, are known as pathological liars. Just why do they do it? And how can you spot a pathological liar?
Lies: We All Tell Them
Before we can define pathological lying, we have to define lying. Lying is the act of telling an untruth knowingly and with the intention to deceive. Though lying is almost universally seen as a bad thing, let's be absolutely clear: we all tell lies. Lying is part of the human condition. Even animals — not just primates but also birds, dogs, and even fish — engage in deception, either as a social strategy or to survive, by disguising themselves as other species or pretending to be dead, for instance. Babies can "tell lies" by faking laughter or crying when they are as young as six months of age. Some studies indicate that humans tell, on average, three lies for every 10 minutes of conversation. Let's be honest for a moment: you and I are not exempt, and that ain't a lie.
While almost all of us understand the value of "white lies" that tell the deceived they look beautiful or they cooked a wonderful meal, we humans don't appreciate having our trust breached when somebody lies to us about bigger things.
Pathological Lying Defined
Your everyday garden variety liar tells lies with a purpose — to prevent hurting their loved one, to avoid punishment or other negative consequences, or to access certain benefits. They may lie on their CV to get a better job, tell their parents they got a better grade than they did on that test, or say they stayed late at work to hide the fact that they are cheating on their spouse. These lies may be met with varying degrees of judgment, but they are not what we have in mind when we're talking about pathological liars.
Pathological liars are an entirely different species. Though they know they're lying — otherwise they'd be deluded, not liars — the majority of the lies they tell serve no apparent purpose or are outrageous and grandiose. Most of all, they tell lies habitually, all the time. Lying is their natural state of being.
It's currently unknown exactly how prevalent the phenomenon of the pathological liar is. What is clear, however, is that the habitual lying these people engage in is frequently impulsive rather than planned and doesn't tend to be self-serving. Patholigical liars seem to derive pleasure from the act of lying, and the lies they tell can often be caught out quite easily by those who pay attention — unless the pathological liar pays extreme attention to detail and lives their whole life devoted to deception, which certainly happens. Pathological liars aren't insane; they can exercise sound judgment in other areas, and are completely aware of what they are doing, though probably not why.
The concept of pathological lying is rather controversial in clinical circles. Though you can Google "pathological liar syndrome", no such disorder exists in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Compulsive lying is, however, recognized as part of the symptomatic picture of certain personality disorders. Not all pathological liars would be labeled with any of the following disorders, but they can all result in compulsive lying:
- Narcissistic Personality Disorder: People with NPD may tell grandiose lies that make themselves look impressive, famous, or like they are entitled to special treatment.
- Antisocial Personality Disorder: Sociopaths, who are not capable of feeling empathy or remorse, gravitate towards telling manipulative lies without regard to their victims' feelings.
- Borderline Personality Disorder: The pull-push tendency of people with BPD can lead them to tell lies that shift the blame of any problem away from them, or to make you feel pity.
- Hystrionic Personality Disorder: People who have this disorder may tell lies that place them at the center of everyone's attention.
- Obsessive Compulsive Disorder: Generally leaning towards honesty, these people may tell lies to avoid ther shame that they associate with their obsessions and compulsions.