The Psychology of Lying: Pathological vs. Compulsive Liars

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Have you ever wondered why people lie? It’s a common behaviour that we all engage in, whether it’s to avoid punishment or to protect someone’s feelings. But for some individuals, lying goes beyond just occasional fibbing – it becomes a pathological or compulsive behaviour. 

Pathological and compulsive lying are two types of lies that are often misunderstood. They may seem similar at first, but they have distinct differences in their underlying causes and impact on a person’s life. 

In this article, we will delve into the psychology of these two types of liars and uncover the truth behind their actions.

What is Pathological Liar?

A pathological liar lies out of a defence mechanism. This type of liar lies to get their way and doesn’t heed the consequences or how it will hurt others. They are completely unaware of their actions and the moral greyness associated with their behaviour. This mechanism is developed during infantile childhood or from genetics. 

Pathological liars are often not aware of their lies and believe their own fabrications. They may also need help to differentiate between truth and fiction, leading to a blurred sense of reality. Such a personality wants affection, attention, and sympathy. They are not interested in the consequences of their actions.

It is considered a psychological condition or a symptom of underlying mental health issues. This pattern or symptom is often directly related to antisocial personality disorder (APD) and narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).

What is a Compulsive Liar?

A compulsive liar will incessantly and habitually lie. Compulsive lying also develops in childhood but not as a trauma or gene. It grew as a habit, as the child found lying to be easier than telling the truth. They find it easier to hide behind a lie rather than face the consequences of their actions. Compulsive liars are not excessively manipulative or cunning (like a pathological liar). Instead, they lie out of habit which is an automatic response that is difficult to overcome and can strain relationships.

This type of lying is often linked with underlying insecurities and low self-esteem, causing them to fabricate stories and exaggerate the truth in order to feel better about themselves.

Compulsive lying might have helped these people in many situations. But it doesn’t always have anything to do with mental disorders. Compulsive liars know that they are forging a lie over the truth. They understand the reality. People with ADHD, bipolar disorders, and borderline personality disorder may sometimes be prone to compulsive lying.

Comparison Between Pathological and Compulsive Liar?

Pathological Liar

Compulsive Liar

A liar who lies repetitively and persistently to benefit themselves with no or harmful motives. A liar who lies habitually.
Genetic condition or trauma-induced Trauma-induced or rewarded with repetition
May have an underlying personality or mental disorder May not have an underlying personality or mental disorder
Lies to manipulate or deceive others for their selfish benefit. Lies impulsively to avoid confrontation. They don’t always have any manipulative reason to lie.
Not easy to catch them in the act, as they create elaborate stories and they even match up. May be easy to see through their lies as they don’t prepare their stories ahead.
They have a distorted sense of reality as they righteously believe their lies to be the truth. They will admit to lying if confronted. But they won’t change their ways. Even if they try, it will be extremely difficult to change.

Signs of Pathological Liar

1. Frequent Lying

Pathological liars consistently lie and even build upon them. They don’t care if the matter is significant or trivial. They may lie daily or even multiple times a day. Their lies may not have any purpose but are told for the sake of lying.

2. Lack of Motive

Unlike typical lies, pathological liars may have no apparent motive behind their deceptive behavior. Their lies can seem completely irrational and senseless, leaving others perplexed by their dishonesty. Furthermore, these individuals may continue to fabricate falsehoods even when there are no potential benefits or incentives to do so. This intriguing aspect of pathological lying adds an extra layer of complexity to their behavior and further challenges our understanding of human psychology.

3. Inconsistent Stories

Their stories often change. As it happens when you haven’t prepared ahead of time. So they may struggle to keep their lies straight over time. When questioned or confronted, they may provide contradictory information.

4. Embellishments

Pathological liars edges toward embellishing their stories with unnecessary details. They make their narratives more elaborate to make them sound more convincing. Although, this often backfires because they may become inconsistent as we previously explored.

5. Exaggeration

Pathological liars often crosses over with narcissism—a personality type best known for boasting and bluffing. So they may exaggerate their achievements, experiences, or personal qualities to an extreme degree. For example, they might claim to have extraordinary talents or accomplishments that are unlikely or impossible.

6. Lack of Remorse

These liars often lacks a sense of remorse or guilt about their lies. Even when their falsehoods are exposed, they remain arrogant. It is because their lies are not intended to harm anyone — they are just used as a tool to manipulate and control others.

7. Manipulative Behavior

An infamous attribute to pathological liars is their manipulative tendency. They will lie and twist reality to achieve their own goals or avoid consequences. 

8. Isolation

As expected it won’t take much time to figure out these liars. Their lying behavior eventually leads to strained relationships. They, in turn, get socially isolated as people find it difficult to trust them. This then may reinforce their lies and make it a regular occurrence as they don’t have anyone to call them out.

9. Impulsivity

Impulsive lying is something that both compulsive and pathological lying have in common. However, a pathological liar will lack forethought or control instead of relying on habit. They may lie about things without thinking of the consequences or how it will impact others.

10. Insecurity

The pattern of exaggerated lying connects to underlying feelings of insecurity or inadequacy. Feelings of self-doubt can lead to desiring external validation. These feelings can contribute to their need to create false narratives to boost their self-esteem. This is very in line with NPD.

11. Possible Mental Health Issues

Pathological lying is often associated with underlying mental health conditions. Some of these mental health conditions are personality disorders (e.g., narcissistic personality disorder, borderline personality disorder), or other psychological issues.

How to Recover from Pathological Lying?

  1. Seek Professional Help: The first step towards recovery is acknowledging the problem and seeking professional help. A therapist or Counsellor can help you understand the root cause of your lying Behaviour and provide helpful strategies to overcome it.
  2. Identify Triggers: Pay attention to the situations or emotions that trigger your lying behavior. It could be feelings of inadequacy, fear, or insecurity. Once you identify your triggers, it will be easier to control the urge to lie.
  3. Practice Honesty: Start practicing honesty in small ways, such as admitting mistakes or being truthful with your thoughts and feelings. This will help build trust and integrity within yourself.
  4. Develop Empathy: Work on developing empathy towards others by putting yourself in their shoes. This can help you understand the impact of your lying behavior on others and motivate you to change.
  5. Find Healthy Coping Mechanisms: Instead of relying on lying, find healthier ways to cope with your emotions and manage stress. This could include Practising mindfulness, exercise, or engaging in a hobby.

Signs of Compulsive Liar

1. Lying as a Response

Unlike pathological liars, compulsive liars tend to lie only when they are uncomfortable or feel trapped in extreme situations. When pressured with an unwanted question, the individual may become evasive and make up stories on the spot. This provides them a way out of awkwardness.

2. Exaggerations

Similar to pathological liars, compulsive liars may also engage in exaggeration. But they are not as elaborate and detailed as pathological liars.

3. Immediate Confession

Compulsive lying is impulsive behaviour that most individuals might regret almost immediately after the lie escapes their lips. In contrast to pathological liars who may stick with their story till the end, compulsive liars typically confess their lies right away once they realise what they have done.

4. Lack of Manipulation

Unlike pathological liars, compulsive liars don’t show any indication of purposely trying to manipulate others. Compulsive lying is mostly a defense mechanism that comes from low self-esteem or fear of confrontation.

5. Habitual

Compulsive lying is a habitual behavior and usually not planned. They may even lie about insignificant things just because it has become a habit or reflex for them.

6. Improper Consequences

Compulsive lying is an unhealthy behavior and can lead to negative outcomes such as losing trust, damaging relationships, and harming one’s own self-image. These individuals may be unaware of the consequences or too impulsive to think about them before lying.

7. No Personal Gain

Compulsive liars don’t usually have a hidden motive or personal gain behind their lies. Their lying behaviour is often triggered by anxiety, fear, or insecurity. They may lie to cover up their mistakes, avoid criticism or judgment, or to gain acceptance from others.

8. Possible Mental Health Issues

Similar to pathological liars, compulsive lying can also be a symptom of underlying mental health issues such as anxiety disorders, mood disorders, or personality disorders. Addressing these underlying issues can help reduce the compulsion to lie.

9. Trauma Response

Compulsive lying can also be a response to past trauma such as physical or emotional abuse. Lying may serve as a coping mechanism for dealing with the pain and avoiding further harm.

How to Recover from Compulsive Lying? 

  1. Seek therapy: Therapy can help identify underlying issues that contribute to compulsive lying and provide tools to manage the behaviour.
  2. Practice honesty: Making a conscious effort to be truthful, even in small things, can help break the habit of lying.
  3. Take accountability: Owning up to lies and taking responsibility for their consequences can lead to personal growth and improvement.
  4. Learn coping mechanisms: Finding healthier ways to deal with stress or anxiety can reduce the need to lie as a defence mechanism.
  5. Build self-esteem: Working on building confidence and self-worth can decrease the need for external validation through lies.
  6. Practice mindfulness: Being more aware of thoughts, feelings, and actions can help recognize triggers for lying and choose a different response.
  7. Apologize and make amends: Taking responsibility for the harm caused by lying and making sincere apologise can help rebuild trust in relationships.

What Causes Them to Lie So Frequently?

  • Low self-esteem: Both types of liars may struggle with feelings of inadequacy or worthlessness, leading them to lie in order to feel better about themselves.
  • Fear of confrontation: Lying can be a defence mechanism to avoid conflict or criticism. They may lie to avoid facing consequences or being judged.
  • Need for control: Pathological liars often have a need for control and power over others, which can lead them to manipulate through lying. Compulsive liars may use lies as a way to control how others perceive them.
  • Coping mechanism: For compulsive liars, lying may be a way to cope with past traumas or difficult situations. It allows them to escape reality and create a false narrative that makes them feel better.

How to Cope Up With Compulsive and Pathological Liars?

Even though dealing with a liar can be challenging and frustrating, there are some steps you can take to Cope with their behaviour:

1. Don’t Engage in Arguments

Avoid getting into arguments or trying to prove that the individual is lying. This will only feed into their manipulative tendencies and may make the situation worse.

2. Set Boundaries

Make it clear that you will not tolerate lying behaviour and set consequences for when they lie. This can help discourage the behaviour and protect yourself from being manipulated.

3. Seek Professional Help

If the individual is open to it, encourage them to seek professional help in addressing any underlying mental health issues or trauma that may be contributing to their lying behaviour.

4. Protect Yourself

Prioritize your own well-being and take precautions to shield yourself from further harm if you feel that a liar is manipulating or taking advantage of you. This may mean setting boundaries, distancing yourself from the individual, or seeking support from others.


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