Clinical psychologist Candice Lam, of the Mindcare clinic in Central, Hong Kong, says compulsive or pathological lying is a mental illness in itself or a symptom of mental illnesses such as narcissistic personality disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, anxiety and depression.

“Pathological liars’ brain structure is different from [that of] normal people,” she says. “Normal people will feel fear when they lie, as lying involve risks and [possible negative] consequences. But pathological liars don’t feel any fear when lying. They can’t control their lying behaviour.”

The first study in the world to provide evidence of structural neurological differences in pathological liars was done by the University of Southern California and published in the British Journal of Psychiatry in 2005. Researchers used magnetic resonance imaging to explore structural brain differences between liars and control groups. The findings showed that the brains of liars had significantly more white matter and slightly less grey matter than those of study subjects in control groups.

A researcher involved in the study, Adrian Raine, told Science Daily that having more white matter may give liars the tools to master the art of deceit.

Lam says telling so-called white lies – harmless or trivial untruths, often to avoid hurting another’s feelings – is an evolutionary human trait and serves critical functions such as avoiding embarrassment and making oneself look better in front of potential mates. However, she adds, there is a clinical difference between lying for external benefit and lying for internal reasons.

“People lie to gain external benefits like sex, power and money. Like a [married man] lies to a woman [to say] that he is single in the hope of a sex reward, or a child lies about having done his homework to avoid punishment. This kind of lying is driven by external factors and cannot be considered pathological,” she explains.

“However, some people lie to satisfy internal desires. As an act of self-aggrandisement, their lying makes them feel good about themselves. Or their lying might gain them more outside attention. They can’t control these internal desires. This is pathological lying, and addiction to it is common.”

Lam says that, after years of self-deception, pathological liars end up believing their own lies and are no longer aware they are telling untruths.

“They tell lies with much confidence. It’s like actors who are totally into their roles. The act of pathological lying might first start as a self-coping mechanism to deal with stress or adversity. For example, a student might fail in exams multiple times. Not wanting to deal with rejection or neglect by others due to his failure, the come up with a lie to explain away his failure.”

After he tells the same lie repeatedly, he starts to believe it himself, and genuinely begins thinking his failure has nothing to do with his ability. This coping mechanism may help him feel better, but gradually over time, the behaviour will develop into a pathological act.

“We see more pathological liars now because the social media and internet age has made verification of facts a lot easier. Liars were not [always] caught out in the past because their lies were not exposed,” Lam says.

Pathological lying is more likely to occur in certain disorders or among individuals who have certain personality traits. Some diagnoses that might include pathological lying includes:

  1. Narcissism or self-centered behaviors and thought patterns
  2. Selfishness
  3. Abusive attitude
  4. Obsessive, controlling, and compulsive behaviours
  5. Impulsivity
  6. Aggressiveness
  7. Jealous behaviour
  8. Manipulative behaviours
  9. Deceptiveness
  10. Low self-esteem

It is important to keep in mind that there are pathological liars who quite frankly just cannot help telling so many lies. It is almost like an automatic impulse for the liar. Their world is much different from our world. But there are also liars who are gratified by telling lies, are good at it, and do not regret anything they have ever said. These individuals are “skillful” liars who attempt to evade and harm everyone they come across in their lives. 

In fact, these liars would meet diagnostic criteria for antisocial personality disorder (or sociopathy). These sociopaths also tell truths in ways that give incorrect perspectives. In other words, they tell the truth in a misleading way to cause people to view things in an incorrect fashion. Such individuals enjoy and get much gratification from keeping you confused and believing their stories. It is the experience of watching a “victim” run through the maze of confusion that gives gratification to most liars.

Some things to bear in mind as you deal with the pathological liar:

  1. Know that a pathological liar will study you: The goal of the liar may be hidden, but you can count on the fact that they don’t want you to know the truth. In order to evade someone, you certainly need to study the person and examine what that person might or might not believe. Liars, often sociopaths, are known to “study” the person they hope to take advantage of. In other words, they look for weaknesses.

  2. Don’t forget that the liar lacks empathy: The liar does not have any moral consciousness of how the lying behaviour may make you feel. The liar does not think before he lies: “oh, I better not say that or I could hurt that person or mislead them.” The liar does not care anything about your feelings and never will. As difficult as it is to believe, it is not that easy for the liar to divulge the truth. The liar lacks the ability to consider what you might feel in response to their lie (which is empathy).

  3. Normal people feel guilty and are relieved when you change the topic or stop asking questions: Pathological liars shows no emotion when lying which makes them believable. A person who is lying and has normal levels of empathy and concern for others will often show relief when the topic being discussed is changed. For example, if someone told you that they grew up in a concentration camp and experienced a lot of trauma as a result, you would ask questions about it to further understand. If you changed the topic at the point when you observed stress or anxiety in response to your questions, you would see the person relax because they are aware of the consequences of their lying. Most of us will relax when others cease from asking too many questions about a topic we are lying about. A pathological liar is not fazed. You will rarely if ever see emotion.

  4. All liars do not do the common things you think liars do: Believe it or not, liars do not always touch their nose, shift in their seats or from one foot to the next, or even look sneaky when lying. Some really experienced liars are good at giving you direct eye contact, seeming relaxed or “laid back,” and may appear very sociable. The thing to look for is eye contact that feels piercing. Some sociopaths have learned how to evade people with direct eye contact, sociable smiles, humour. Trust your instincts and discernment. What do their eyes tell you? What does their behaviour or laughter tell you?
  5. The most sneaky liars are manipulative: I once heard someone say “we all manipulate.” While this might be true to a certain degree, the liar tends to manipulate more than anyone else and has learned how to become a “pro” at doing it. There is nothing impressive about the dangerous or evil manipulator. They know everything to say and do, they know what you want and don’t want, and again, they will “study” you. In fact, many pathological liars (and sociopaths) use sexual or emotional arousal to distract you from the truth. Proceed with caution when dealing with someone who seems to be directing their attention to you in such a way as to stimulate your arousal to distract you. That arousal could be psychological (piquing your interest), emotional (causing you to feel connected to them), or sexual.

    Can pathological liars stop lying?
    Pathological lying can be treated through cognitive behavioural therapy, Lam says, where a psychologist will first identify the reasons for the patients’ lying, then help them cope with their problems and face reality.

“The prognosis for pathological liars is not good, as the patients usually won’t seek mental help themselves. It is usually family members who witness their pattern of lying who want them to seek treatment,” Lam explains.

“We will treat the patient’s personality disorders or mental health problems associated with their habit of lying. Therapy will be [used] to reduce their impulse to lie, break the habit, deal with their self-esteem issues, help them learn to accept themselves for who they are, and make them aware that lying will only make things worse because it will bring more recrimination and punishment.”

Courtesy of Clinical psychologist Candice Lam.

End notes: 
Those of us who have suffered domestic abuse at the hands of a narcissist, sociopath or psychopath will understand how the pathological liar uses this amongst other sinister tactics to “gaslight” their victims, actually trying to make them believe that they are the crazy ones and using this to escape any challenges for their inexcusable behaviour. 

Their perception of reality is a lie, no truth attached to any of it. These people are dangerous to be around as they change the perception of others through lies. You need to trust your gut instinct of who the person was, before these toxic and pathological liars entered their life and question why they are trying to change your view of them.

This is a simple example but just see how the perception changes, when you say:

“a debt collector called to see me” 
and the pathological liar turns it into: 
“she hired a hit man to scare me off”

Immediately you start thinking she is dangerous and unhinged when the reverse is the truth. Sadly, those with personality disorders won’t seek help as they take no responsibility for any of their actions. This only leaves their families to intervene and suggest that they seek mental health support as they will probably have had concerns for years but never acted on it.