The Odd Truth About “Pathological” Lying

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Why would someone lie about things that appear inconsequential, or in situations where the truth would seem to do just as well? The truth about what sometimes seems to be senseless, irrational or “pathological” lying is that there’s actually a purpose to it, and that purpose is almost always the same.

Some say that lying is simply part of being human. All of us have been less than truthful at one time or another. Sometimes (like when we tell “little white lies”) there’s really no ill intent behind our untruthfulness (like when we’re trying to spare someone the harsh reality of how we really think they look in the outfit they’re wearing). But as we all know, lying can become a real problem at times, inflicting injury on others and souring relationships. Those problems can stem not only from the ways we’re dishonest with others but also from the ways we deceive ourselves.

Research conducted at the University of Southern California suggests that all of the reasons we lie boil down to two principal objectives: to prevent something we find undesirable from happening or to help us secure something we find desirable but anticipate we won’t succeed in getting if we’re honest about things. (That’s why we cheat, for example, when playing games or taking tests.) But some folks seem to be more inveterate liars, calculating sorts who are out to deceive and manipulate at every turn, and almost always with malevolent intent. Some of these folks have been called “pathological liars” not only because they seem to lie repeatedly but also because they lie about things that appear inconsequential and in situations where the truth would seem to do just as well. This type of seemingly irrational lying is very common in individuals whom I describe in my book Character Disturbance as falling at the more extreme end of the character disturbance spectrum — e.g., psychopaths, sociopaths — but it can also occur in individuals with a lesser degree of character impairment. Because of how illogical this kind of lying appears, it prompts the question of why anyone would prefer to lie even when it would seem to make more sense to simply tell the truth.

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My years of experience working with disturbed characters have taught me that the folks we call “pathological liars” are not as irrational or as mindless in their behavior as they might first appear. While it sometimes seems that there’s no reason for them to lie, there’s actually a method to their apparent madness. You see, lying is one of the most effective tactics a person can use both to resist submitting to societal expectations and simultaneously to manipulate and manage the impressions of others. (For more on this, see “Lying: The Ultimate Manipulation Tactic”.) So the truth about what sometimes seems to be senseless, irrational or “pathological” lying is that there’s actually a purpose to it, and the purpose is almost always the same: to maintain a position of advantage. Disturbed and disordered characters don’t like a level playing field. Whenever they engage, they want to have the advantage. If you don’t know who they really are, what’s really going on with them, what they’re really up to, how they really feel about something, what they really want, etc., then you’re automatically in a one-down position, and that’s just the way they like it. Keeping you in the dark and thereby gaining a leg up on you — that’s what it’s all about, pure and simple. This is why some people lie, even when it doesn’t seem to make any sense. When your primary concern in life is always to be in a one-up position, it makes perfect sense to deceive, even when it doesn’t appear necessary.

Over the years, I’ve heard from hundreds of individuals whose relationship partners led “double lives” but were exposed for the disturbed characters and frauds they really were only after bank accounts were already cleaned out, affairs that had been going on for years finally came to light, or the many stories that had been told were finally proven false. In each case, the victims of such duplicitous behavior found themselves wondering how they’d managed to be “duped” for so long. Were they too swayed by their partner’s charm to see the truth? Was their partner really different at first but changed for some unknown reason? Did they have a part in bringing about such a change? The one thing they never considered is that there are some people who by nature simply won’t permit themselves the vulnerability essential to an equal partnership. Right from the beginning, it was all about position and impression management for them, scoping out opportunities, exploiting weaknesses and vulnerabilities, and looking for advantage. While the victim’s guts might have been churning at the “red flags” they sensed about these things, they tended to discount their gut feelings because it was so unfathomable that there could be people so hell bent on maintaining a position of advantage that they would never reveal their true nature or agendas. (I speak to this issue in depth in my book In Sheep’s Clothing). Unfortunately, after realizing how badly they’d been duped, many victims also struggle with shame, guilt, and a tendency to constantly question their ability to ever again be able to make sound judgments. Surviving a relationship with a pathological liar can leave you feeling quite uneasy and perplexed. Coming to understand the nature of character disturbance and accepting the fact that some disturbed characters simply lack the capacity (or the willingness) to relate on equal, respectful terms can shed a new light on things and enable you to regain a sense of personal integrity and self respect.

It’s possible you’ll have an encounter with someone whose outlandish claims don’t seem all that believable and whose stories just don’t add up but who also appears to have no reason to deceive. Perhaps your gut will churn a bit, trying to make sense of things. If this happens, consider the possibility that you’re dealing with someone who lacks the desire or capacity to relate with you on fair and equal terms and only wants the upper hand. And don’t waste too much time asking yourself why. Just pay heed to your instincts and watch your back. Odds are, you’ll be very glad you did.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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