Pathological lying is not a clinically defined term. With no entry in Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) the standard reference for mental health disorders, a doctor will simply not be able to diagnose someone as a pathological liar.
Known as mythomania, pseudologia fantastica and even lying addiction, pathological lying is a behavior in which the individual will lie compulsively or habitually. So, although most people might think they would know what pathological lying is, a doctor might, instead, look for other reasons for the behavior, such as Narcissistic Personality Disorder or Borderline Personality Disorder.
Understanding Lying Addiction (Mythomania)
It’s important to differentiate pathological lies from other lies. They are, essentially, lies for the sake of it. Everyone will lie from time to time, but pathological liars cannot help themselves11.M. Pips, Psychiatry Online, Psychiatric Research and Clinical Practice.; Retrieved September 23, 2022, from https://prcp.psychiatryonline.org/doi/10.1176/appi.prcp.20190046.
White Lies vs Lying Addiction
White lies are not be classified as lying addiction. These small lies are usually deployed to help smooth things other or avoid upset. Indeed, there is some evidence that despite most people being brought up to value honesty, there are societal benefits to white lies. This means that even if someone were using white lies frequently, it would not be pathological lying or lying addiction.
Even lies that are more commonly recognize as wrong, for example to avoid the negative consequences of an action or to benefit the teller, are not pathological. Even though these may be morally wrong, they are used for a specific purpose.
Lying addiction will usually lack a direct motive. The liar will simply tell them because they can, there will be no direct motive as there are in other types of lie. And the behavior will be exhibited frequently, a pathological liar won’t just tell the occasional exaggerated story about the fish they landed, but lie almost constantly.
Causes of Lying Addiction and Pathological Lying
Because there is no definition of lying addiction, it’s hard to identify causes. Some do consider lying that results from other negative behaviors as mythomania in its own right22.R. Thom, P. Teslyar and R. Friedman, Pseudologia Fantastica in the Emergency Department: A Case Report and Review of the Literature – PMC, PubMed Central (PMC).; Retrieved September 23, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5442346/. For example, lying in a frequent behavior in addicts, and is a symptom of narcissistic personality disorder. However, most would suggest that, in these cases, the pathological lying, even if it has spread beyond the initial cause, is a symptom and not a condition in its own right.
Causes of mythomania
In some people, lying addiction has been linked to head injuries and trauma, which appears to affect the social checks that most people employ. This suggests there might be some neurological explanation in some cases.
It has also been suggested that it might be linked to undiagnosed mental health conditions such as PTSD. Pathological liars will often put themselves at the center of their lies, perhaps in the role of hero or victim. The lies might, therefore, be a symptom of some self-esteem issues or a form of psychological self-protection.
There is also the possibility that lying is an addiction in its own right. There are several recognized process addictions, where an addiction can form from a behavior, such as gambling or shopping, altering the brain’s reward pathways.
Proponents of this idea suggest that a similar mechanism might be at play. In this case, a lie being believed stimulates a reward within the brain. In time, this reward mechanism results in the liar deploying bigger lies and more frequently as they develop a ’tolerance’.
Because there are no agreed causes, there is no agreed treatment for pathological lying. In most cases, a doctor or therapist would try to identify the underlying cause and, instead, treat that.
Symptoms of Lying Addiction
Because there is no agreed diagnosis, there are no agreed symptoms. However, there are some factors that are common among pathological liars.
Lying Addiction Starts Young
The lying addiction will often start in childhood or their teens. While lying as a child is common, they do not grow out of this behavior.
The Lies Told are Dramatic
The lies will have no obvious purpose; they will be lies seemingly for the sake of lying. However, the liar will often be central to the lie in some way, and the lies will frequently be dramatic and detailed. They will not lie about doing routine shopping, but they might lie about a dramatic accident they saw on the way, going through the gruesome injuries they saw while they heroically helped, for example.
Often the lies will make the storyteller the victim of some perceived abuse or attack, and upon greater analysis the liar will often have a vendetta against one or a group of individuals.
The liar will frequently be a great storyteller and people actually want to listen to the lies because they are entertaining and dramatic. Indeed, along with the detail, many pathological liars come to believe the lies they are telling. Despite this, they are not usually deterred by getting caught out, although some may experience anxiety about their lies being uncovered.
The behavior is long-term. We all exaggerate and tell tales, and occasionally that behavior might be over a period of time, when meeting new people or trying to impress a potential partner. For a pathological liar, though, there will be no end to the behavior.
Deal With a Pathological Liar
It can be hard to spot a pathological liar. They are experienced at it, as well as being entertaining, and humans tend to be trusting and, even if distrustful, we are uncomfortable challenging others. However, there are some strategies for dealing with pathological liars.
Remember that it’s not usually personal
A pathological liar is not really lying to deceive or fool anyone, they are lying just for themselves. They may also have difficulties in connecting and empathizing with other people, so may simply not realize the harm they may be causing.
Expect them to deny their behavior
If challenging a pathological liar, expect them to deny their behavior, and even be angry. However, it is important not to respond with anger, but instead to remain calm and dispassionate. And never engage with the lie, either by encouraging it even if it is an entertaining story or challenging it. Clearly state it is a lie, and refuse to continue being part of it.
Finally, be supportive, let the liar know they don’t need to lie and suggest they get help. The lying serves no purpose, and a pathological liar, when supported, can lead a much fuller — and more honest — life when they abandon their behavior in favor of honesty.
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- 11.M. Pips, Psychiatry Online, Psychiatric Research and Clinical Practice.; Retrieved September 23, 2022, from https://prcp.psychiatryonline.org/doi/10.1176/appi.prcp.20190046
- 22.R. Thom, P. Teslyar and R. Friedman, Pseudologia Fantastica in the Emergency Department: A Case Report and Review of the Literature – PMC, PubMed Central (PMC).; Retrieved September 23, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5442346/
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