This Is The Key Difference Between An Occasional And A Pathological Liar
When does a harmless lying habit turn into a compulsion?
By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | November 8, 2023
It is near impossible to live life without lying. Whether it's the polite "white lies" or calculated deception, we all "lie" somewhere on the spectrum. Pathological lying, however, transcends the occasional untruth. It's a relentless pattern of fabrication that defies easy explanation.
As the liar is usually well-versed in the art of tweaking or revamping what's true, pathological lying can be extremely difficult to detect and unravel. However, recent research has made it easier to spot, assess and understand this behavior.
Occasional Lies Versus Pathological Lies
Although some might not be willing to admit it, everybody lies at some point or another, and these occasional lies take on different forms. While lying is generally frowned upon, some forms of lying can be relatively harmless, while others can be more deceptive and misleading. According to research, the occasional lies can be placed into three categories: white lies, gray lies and real lies.
- White lies. These are harmless, often well-intentioned lies told to spare someone's feelings or avoid unnecessary conflict or discomfort. They usually have minimal consequences and are generally socially acceptable. For example, praising your aunt's cooking—even if the meal wasn't to your liking—to be polite and maintain harmony.
- Gray lies do not fit neatly into the categories of white lies or real lies. They are not necessarily as malicious as real lies, but they are more serious than white lies. Gray lies can be used to avoid unnecessary conflict or discomfort but may not always have the pure intentions of white lies. Examples of these include lies of omission—leaving out important facts when communicating—which can be as deceptive as direct lying. For instance, failing to mention to your friend that their significant other has been flirting with someone else, even though you witnessed it. Another category of gray lies are those of exaggeration, which inflate or embellish the truth to make a story more interesting or to impress others. For example, boasting about how much you can bench press by overstating your weight capacity.
- Real lies. Real lies are more deceptive and deliberate falsehoods intended to gain personal advantage, conceal wrongdoing or manipulate others. They're usually infrequent, but planned and executed for particular reasons, and can have negative social and legal consequences. For example, falsely claiming that your phone was stolen to get a replacement from an insurance company when it was just lost.
Pathological lying as a tendency, distinct from all occasional lies, seems to defy logic. Most pathological liars report an inability to stop themselves from lying even when they want to. On top of that, this behavior is compulsive—which means that the liars are often unable to cite a clear motivation for their need to lie repeatedly.
According to one study, pathological lying is a disorder characterized by a compulsion to habitually fabricate information, often without an apparent reason. Pathological liars find it difficult to control their dishonesty, and lying can become a regular part of their lives.
Their lies are often triggered by a desire to avoid shame or conflict. This behavior typically includes crafting elaborate stories to impress others and adding more lies when faced with questions, leading listeners to accept their falsehoods as reality. The researchers state that pathological liars are characterized by five traits:
- They're great storytellers with vivid, dramatic, fantastic and detailed fiction
- Their lies can be convincing, since they tend to portray themselves as natural performers
- They often tend to portray themselves as victims or heroes in their lies
- Through repeated retelling of their lies, they tend to believe their lies to be realities
- When confronted or engaged in conversation, they tend to speak restlessly without being specific to the question, and act disproportionately without stating a clear objective, avoiding direct answers and behaving in a manner lacking clear intent
How Pathological Lying Can Be Spotted And Measured
Recognizing pathological lying can be incredibly challenging, but a recent study published in Psychiatric Research and Clinical Practice aimed to develop a self-assessment scale that measures these behaviors. To take the assessment, one can consider each of the seven items in the questionnaire and how strongly they agree or disagree with them.
- My lying behaviors have resulted in impairment for me in my occupation, social relationships, finances and legal contexts.
- My lying causes me significant distress.
- My lying has put myself or others in danger.
- My lying is something out of my control.
- After I lie, I feel less anxious.
- My lies tend to grow larger from an initial lie.
- Most of the lies I tell are for no reason.
According to the researchers, pathological liars deal with greater challenges on a day-to-day basis in terms of emotional, social, legal and financial well-being, stating that they "reported greater distress, impaired functioning and more danger than people not considered pathological liars."
Pathological lying, with its persistent need to fabricate information, can significantly impact one's overall well-being. It erodes trust in relationships, making it difficult to maintain genuine connections with others. This pattern of dishonesty can lead to emotional distress and anxiety as the liar becomes entangled in their own web of lies.
In severe cases, pathological lying may lead to legal trouble and financial instability, further exacerbating the toll it takes on one's emotional, social and even physical health. Recognizing and addressing pathological lying is crucial for preserving one's well-being and fostering healthier, more authentic relationships.
On the spectrum of deception, pathological lying stands as a complex anomaly. More frequent and uncontrollable than an occasional lie, it's a pervasive pattern of manipulation and performance that defies easy classification, often proving detrimental to one's well-being. However, we're now better equipped to identify and measure this behavior.
If you'd like to take the Pathological Lying Survey cited above and receive your results, you can follow this link: Survey of Pathological Lying Behaviors