We all have them – stories of a lie we were told that’s so wild it becomes an anecdote. So much so that when I asked around our office for stories, people came armed with some whoppers. Here's a flavour...
"There was a girl in my form at high school who insisted her brother was S Club 7's helicopter pilot."
"This blows my mind but I have a friend who tells the most bizarre lies from time to time. She once made up having contracted a deadly parasite while abroad, she kept it going for ages and is convinced it's still living inside her – but the story never added up."
"A guy told me that he owned Sushi Samba and Space NK, before he tried to get me to date him. A few months later he was jailed for fraud and on the front page of Mail Online."
"I had an ex who I met on the street after we broke up, asked him where he was living and he lied on the spot, pointing to a commercial building in the street where we were standing and said 'there'. It was clearly not residential but he insisted so I dropped it. He was a WILD liar."
These are the kind of lies that are blatantly outrageous (either in the telling or with the minimum of fact checking), yet told with a straight face. They are not what you’d call normal lying, which is defined as "defensive and told to avoid the consequences of truth telling", be it to protect someone else, avoid punishment or ease general conversation. Pathological lying, on the other hand, is much harder to explain.
That’s the case not just for the general public but for professionals who work in psychology, too. In many ways it feels impossible to find a clear definition of pathological lying, whether it is distinct from compulsive lying and what drives it. This is complicated by the fact we live in a deeply digital world, where lying is apparently easier to do online than face to face, making the kinds of fabrications that boost your self-esteem or feed your narcissism that much harder to uncover. In an effort to understand it, we’ve done the legwork of finding out what we mean when we say someone’s a pathological liar and how to respond if you think someone in your life is one.
Simply put, pathological lying is a compulsive behaviour where the lies have no clear personal benefit or motivation or are out of proportion to any perceived benefit or motivation. Dr Patapia Tzotzoli, a clinical psychologist, tells Refinery29: "The behaviour seems to be the result of more internalised motivations such as to enhance self-esteem, an act of defence or narcissistic gratification. People who pathologically lie demonstrate an impaired ability to distinguish between fiction and reality and it is often observed that the lie eventually wins power over the pathological liar and he loses mastery of his own lies."
It is also known as compulsive lying, mythomania or pseudologia fantastica, but the most consistent name seems to be 'pathological lying'. First described by Dr Anton Delbruck, a German physician, in 1891, there is still no clear consensus on whether it is a diagnosis in itself or a symptom of other disorders. Patapia says: "Undoubtedly, more research is needed to adequately define pathological lying in a more clear, consistent and scientific way."
As it stands, there is a running debate on whether it should be formally recognised as its own psychiatric disorder. "It is more commonly perceived as a symptom of other underlying health conditions. The usual suspect is a personality disorder such as borderline, narcissistic or antisocial personality disorder. It is also seen as a symptom in frontotemporal dementia, factitious disorder and among people with alcohol dependence or brain damage," Patapia tells me.
Because it is a symptom of many differing disorders, the drive to lie (and how such behaviour is interpreted by the liar) varies wildly. That said, there has been some research into various biological factors. In 2005, researchers at the University of Southern California investigated whether there were structural abnormalities in the brains of "deceitful individuals" and found that "liars showed a 22–26% increase in prefrontal white matter and a 36–42% reduction in prefrontal grey/white ratios compared with both antisocial controls and normal controls." An earlier review from 1988 found that 40% of recorded cases of pseudologia fantastica reported central nervous system (CNS) abnormality such as "epilepsy, abnormal EEG findings, ADHD, head trauma, or CNS infection." In short, there is evidence to imply that the brains of liars could be wired differently from the brains of non-liars.
Nurture and personality may have an influence, too. Thirty percent of subjects from the 1988 study were found to have a "chaotic home environment, where a parent or other family member had a mental disturbance." And as Patapia noted, while there isn’t a clear material gain to a lot of these lies, there is often an internal, psychological benefit that is gratifying or alleviating – either as a form of narcissism or to combat/mask insecurities.
These possible factors behind the liar's behaviour can help make sense of what's happening, especially when there seems to be no other rational explanation. Jenny* shared a home with a young woman who would routinely and inexplicably tell lies. "I had a roommate who texted us that she had left the house when we were all pre-drinking at home. We looked through her curtains on our way to town and she was sat on her bed, staring at the wall," she says. "Another time she lied that she hadn't eaten our just-cooked lasagne despite it being just her and me in the house... She said her godfather was Alex James from Blur, and insisted she hadn't stolen my perfume (but started smelling just like it the day it went missing)."
Ultimately though, the mission to pin down such behaviour, either as a symptom or a disorder in itself, obscures the fact that the motivation can change from person to person. Consequently, how to help someone who compulsively lies should also be individualised. Dr Nicolina Spatuzzi, a chartered clinical psychologist at London Psychology Space, tells me over email that it's important to try and understand the context of each person's life, and the environment in which the lying has emerged. "The distress associated with their experiences may exceed the internal resources this person has to attempt to manage their life story. For some individuals, lying may then develop as the person’s attempt at protecting them from their unbearable reality. In clinical practice, we would hope to cultivate a safe space for this to be explored."
In an ideal world, someone who seems to lie compulsively would be given the kind of care described above, but it’s not always possible, and such behaviour can have a detrimental impact on your personal relationships. But all is not necessarily lost. If you find yourself in this situation, Patapia emphasises remembering that the behaviour has nothing to do with you: "This will help you keep a mental distance and protect yourself from things being said that could have an effect on you otherwise."
You can choose to try and discourage the liar by letting them know you're not interested in continuing conversations which lack honesty, but this could be met with denial and anger. "Perhaps a better strategy is to diffuse the conversation with humour and redirect it to other topics," suggests Patapia. "If this person is someone close to you, then assuming you have a secure relationship with them, you can help them see the consequences that this behaviour has in their life by using real examples and avoiding judgement or shaming, and encourage them to seek professional help."
*Name has been changed