Compulsive Liars: The Truth About Lying

“You’re a despicable liar!” These words, shouted by my 11-year-old cousin, John, were etched into my mind some forty years ago. Not because they stung, but because I was so struck by John’s impressive use of the word “despicable,” and the dramatic flair with which he hurled it at me. I distinctly remember that I felt falsely accused, but John did have reason to be miffed. Earlier that day, on our seaside vacation, his 13-year-old sister, Margaret, and I had been given $20 to share with our brothers at the arcade. Instead we took the money and ran. From inside the Chinese restaurant, where we spent the money on a sumptuous lunch, Margaret and I looked out the window to see the boys hunting for us; focused and angry, they walked by without spotting us. We thought this was hilarious. I have an even earlier memory of being deceptive: I was in a crib and I premeditated a fake cry so that the babysitter (a pretty teenager who was playing the guitar in the other room with her boyfriend) would come and pick me up. These are fairly normal deceptions for a child. Research shows that by the age of six months, children learn that they can manipulate adults’ responses to get what they want.

There is no doubt that everybody lies. Researchers say people encounter as many as 200 lies a day, many of them harmless. As Pamela Meyer writes in her book LIESPOTTING, even animals use deception, like birds that pretend to be injured to divert predators from invading their nests or predators camouflaging themselves in the forest. Humans have various reasons for lying, and there are different classes of “liars.” From the average person who tells a couple white lies a day, to the person who cheats to get ahead, to the compulsive or pathological liar who can charm and wreak havoc, we confront deception all the time. In some cases, the consequences of lies are devastating. While we can’t control whether others try to deceive us, we can protect ourselves. Meyer writes, “Deception is a cooperative act…a lie does not have power by its utterance – its power lies in someone agreeing to believe the lie” (2010). So let’s look at lying and liars, and learn how to identify and disarm them.

White Lies

Even though we are taught that lying is wrong, we all tell lies every day; but lots of them are “white lies.” A co-worker asks you how you are and you say “fine” even though you have indigestion, or your friend asks if she looks puffy and you look straight into her puffy eyes and say “No, you look great,” These are lies, but they’re pretty innocent. We use these kinds of lies as “social lubricant” without doing much damage.

Lying for Gain

Moving up to more consequential lies, people can use deception with what Meyer calls “offensive motives” in order to obtain rewards, gain advantages over others, win admiration or exercise power over others.  Lying with offensive motives could be as mild as padding your resume just a smidgen to score a new job or as toxic as televangelist Jim Baker ripping off millions of dollars from his vulnerable flock.  “Defensive motives” for lying include avoiding punishment or embarrassment, protecting others, avoiding physical or emotional harm, maintaining privacy, and steering clear of awkward social situations. Former President Richard Nixon was being offensively deceptive when he colluded in the Watergate scandal, hoping to gain advantage over his democratic adversaries. Presidential candidate, John Edwards, was lying defensively when he claimed that he was not the father of his mistress’ baby.

In general, research shows that men lie about themselves more than about others, often “to appear more interesting, powerful or successful than they are.” Women lie more often “to protect other people’s feelings or make others feel better about themselves” (Meyer, 2010).  Lying for gain includes identity theft, investment fraud, embezzlement, and other business fraud. On one end of the spectrum, you’ve got a little fudging on your own tax return; on the other end, you’ve got the rip-off scheme of Bernie Madoff. Meyer warns that dishonesty in the workplace is far more commonplace than most of us realize.

Pathological or Compulsive Liars

Compulsive or pathological lying is in a whole other league. There is much ambiguity about whether “pathological lying” exists as a disease in and of itself (Dike, 2008). It is often thought to be a secondary feature of some other condition, and is not listed in the DSM-5 as a distinct disorder.  A German physician, Anton Delbruck, was the first to identify the abnormal behavior we now call “pathological lying” and he termed it “pseudologia phantastica” in 1891. There is not a clear distinction in the academic literature between “compulsive lying” and “pathological lying” so I will use them interchangeably. There is general agreement in the psychiatric community that the characteristics of pathological lying include: “a long history (maybe lifelong) of frequent and repeated lying for which no apparent psychological motive or external benefit can be discerned. While ordinary lies are goal-directed…pathological lies often appear purposeless” (Dike, 2008).

We all know about famous people – politicians, celebrities, business people – who have lied either offensively or defensively, but examples of well-known people who lie without any discernable benefit, in other words, who are actually compulsive liars, are more rare. Dike et al cite several examples of prominent men who achieved notoriety in law and business but eventually were toppled due to their pathological lying. Ultimately, compulsive lying is self-destructive. Dr. Dike shares the case of “Patient A” who is a victim of his own compulsion to lie. Patient A has lied to his co-workers about having a terminal disease, necessitating more and more cover-up lies, and finally stops going to work at all, insuring that he will be fired for the umpteenth time. His family can’t trust him and he is finally desperate enough to seek help. As Dike concludes about Patient A, “…the consequences of his lying, in terms of emotional distress and potential loss of job, far outweighed any perceived gain” (2008).

My only known exposure to a true compulsive liar was two steps removed. I had a private detective friend, Jeff, who was following a woman named Mary. Mary’s fiancé, Tim, had hired Jeff because he was working out of state and was starting to suspect Mary was lying to him. Jeff and Tim were both shocked and baffled by what they discovered. While Jeff watched Mary sit at Starbucks sipping coffee alone, Tim called Mary and asked her what she was up to. She said “Hey, how’s it going? I’m at the grocery store.” A couple days later, as Jeff watched Mary walk into the post office, she told Tim on the phone she was just leaving a dental appointment. Later, when Jeff watched Mary sitting on the front porch of her own apartment, she told Tim she was in the back yard at her mother’s house. Every time Mary talked to Tim, she lied, for no discernable reason.

The cause of compulsive lying is unknown. Research has illuminated certain factors, though. One review of 72 cases found that the average onset of the compulsive lying occurred at 16. There were approximately the same number of males and females in the group, and the median IQ was slightly below average, with better verbal IQ than performance IQ (Dike, 2008). Dike also notes findings that “up to 40 percent of cases of pseudologia fantastica have a history of central nervous system abnormalities” like head trauma, epilepsy or CNS infection (Dike, 2008). This indicates that there may be some physiological cause. With more study, there could be future interventions developed for compulsive lying.

Sometimes, another disorder is primary and compulsive lying is just a symptom. In “Pathological Lying Revisited,” Dr. Charles Dike and colleagues describe several psychiatric conditions that provide fertile ground for pathological lying to occur, such as Borderline Personality Disorder and Narcissistic Personality Disorder. A particularly chilling manifestation of pathological lying is its presence as a symptom of “sociopathy,”which Psychology Today describes as “the more egregious, harmful or dangerous patterns of behavior” of Antisocial Personality Disorder. Compared to the compulsive self-destruction of Patient A mentioned above, someone who lies as a result of sociopathy is more dangerous to others. In an interview with Dr. Martha Stout, author of The Sociopath Next Door, she says the defining characteristic of a sociopath is lack of a conscience. Without a conscience, sociopaths focus on controlling and manipulating others. A sociopath will lie just for the game of tricking someone. Sociopaths are known for their callousness, lack of empathy and absence of remorse when they have hurt someone. Stout warns that they can be extremely charming and charismatic, “more spontaneous, or more intense, or somehow more ‘complex,’ or sexier, or more entertaining than everyone else” (2005).  The author of Confessions of a Sociopath, M.E. Thomas, shares the list of characteristics she, herself a sociopath, finds most accurately describe her condition in this Psychology Today article, “How to Spot a Sociopath.” In Stout’s more than 25 years of clinical practice as a psychologist, she says she has treated hundreds of adults with debilitating psychological maladies, like dissociated mental states, chronic anxiety, depression, and suicidality. “Some of them have been traumatized by natural and man-made disasters such as earthquakes and wars, but most of them have been controlled and psychologically shattered by individual human perpetrators, often sociopaths – sometimes sociopathic strangers, but more typically sociopathic parents, older relatives or siblings” (2005). Stout’s revelation is sad and disturbing. This is a dark dimension of lying, and anyone who feels they may be the victim of sociopathic behavior should seek help. It is also important, however, that we not try to diagnose someone else as sociopathic. There are plenty of people who are acting out of emotional pain and hurting others, who are not sociopathic. A good therapist can help us heal, regardless of our particular circumstances. Here is a helpful resource for finding a therapist.

Whether we are concerned about a person who may be sociopathic or we are dealing with dishonesty in some other manner, we can learn skills to identify a deceptive person. Knowledge is power that may spare us from experiencing real losses, great and small.

How to Spot a Liar

Do you have confidence about your ability to recognize when someone is lying? How about the idea that a liar will avoid eye contact or look nervous? Neither of these behaviors are primary indicators of lying. Pamela Meyer has made a career out of lie detection and she shares some of these methods in her popular TED Talk, “How to spot a liar.” Facial clues include “micro-expressions,” like a split second flash of anger when someone is saying friendly words, or a smile where the lips are upturned but the eyes are not narrowed. The body also belies deception. A person who is lying may try to put “barrier objects” between herself and a questioner, or she may shake her head no when she is answering in the affirmative, or shrug with only one side of her body, suggesting a “fake” emotion. Verbal clues can be in the form of “bolstering statements” like “I swear to God…” or “to be honest…” Former President Bill Clinton’s famous phrase contains a “non-contracted denial” and a “distancing statement,” which are both potential verbal indicators of deception: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” (Meyer, 2010).

I would be remiss if I did not mention the steady stream of verifiably false statementsfrom the current President of the United States. Many believe that in his short tenure, Donald Trump has proven to be the most blatantly dishonest President in American history. A few statesmen, like Bernie Sanders, have referred to Trump as a “pathological liar” outright. It is not yet known whether Mr. Trump lies because he has Narcissistic Personality Disorder, whether he is afflicted with pseudologica fantastica, or whether there is another explanation for his dishonesty. In the face of his lack of credibility, it is more important than ever that we learn to decipher fact from fiction and spot lying when it happens. Getting our news from reliable sources is key. This Forbes article lists 10 news sources that are known for upholding high journalistic standards.

If you are in retail, finance or human resources and you’re looking for a lesson in lie detection and interrogation, you will find this 45 minute presentation by former CIA officer and author of Spy the Lie, Susan Carnicero, very useful. Carnicero outlines six keys to spotting a lie and shares timing patterns and behavior clusters that she considers fool proof in lie detection.

You’ve Got the Power

We have a choice about whether we empower the lies that people tell. It’s important to see the ways we may want to believe a lie. If a charming suitor makes you feel beautiful, perhaps you decide to trust him despite a niggling intuition that he’s bad news. Or maybe I want to believe that a “too good to be true” investment is legitimate because I want fast money and I don’t want to shop around and do my homework. These are ways we make it easy for people to lie to us. Knowing that everybody lies, and that some people do it a lot more than others, the onus is on us to be aware. And the more aware we are of dishonesty, the more we can consciously invest our time and energy in friendships and business relationships that are based on trust and mutual integrity. Pamela Meyer writes, “Liespotting isn’t just about sniffing out liars in the short term; it’s also about building a sustainable infrastructure of trust for the long haul” (2010). No matter what lies or liars we encounter, we have the power to evaluate veracity, to dig for the real facts, and to fortify our own lives and our communities with honesty and respect.


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O’Keefe, E. (2017). Bernie Sanders calls Trump a ‘pathological liar’; Al Franken says ‘a few’ Republicans think Trump is mentally illWashington Post. Retrieved 11 March 2017, from

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Stout, M. (2005). The sociopath next door (1st ed.). New York: Crown Publishing Group.

(Originally published at Psychalive)

Photo by Courtney Clayton on Unsplash