6 Subtle characteristics of the pathological liar

Brian Lary

Have you ever communicated with a person who seemed to live in a fantasy world where everything said “felt” false? What about having an experience with a person who always seems mysterious and nothing they say ever comes to fusion? Well…if so, you might have been dealing with a sociopath or even a pathological liar.

Pathological lying (PL) has been defined by the Psychiatric Times as “a long history (maybe lifelong) of frequent and repeated lying for which no apparent psychological motive or external benefit can be discerned.” There is no real consensus on what pathological lying is and many people have developed their own definition of PL. It is something that has negatively affected many people, even professionals, who are often unaware of the psychiatric instability or personality disorder of the liar.  For example, in one of my previous articles I focused on Judge Patrick Couwenberg, a Superior Court Judge of California, who lied repeatedly while serving the public. The former Judge lied and stated that he was a Caltech graduate, a wounded war veteran and a CIA operative in Laos in the 1960s. All of these statements were easily identified as unreliable, but he continued to evade others. He was removed for “willful and prejudicial misconduct.” His Caltech education was critical to his Judicial position.

The sad part about this story is not so much that the former Judge lost his job in the end, but that he was very unaware of the fact that his steps could be traced and that many people would ultimately find him out. That level of consciousness was missing from Patrick and is missing in so many other people who are compulsive liars. The very fact that a lie could be found out does not affect the liar. The very fact that the liars work-life, home-life, or reputation could be in jeopardy as a result of the lies, does not phase the liar. Guilt, shame, or regret does not affect the liar. Consequences also do not seem to affect the liar. So then why does the liar engage in such behaviors?

Multiple research studies have attempted to find an answer to this question to no avail. Trying to understand the mind, behaviors, and intention of the liar is not an exact science. It is very much an inexact science and entails years of study. Humans are complex and trying to understand the reasons for why they do all the things they do, takes more than a graduate school degree in psychology and years of work experience. For many mental health professionals and psychiatrists, trying to understand the pathological liar (or sociopath who engages in this behavior) will entail a combination of intuition and science. Science alone cannot answer the many questions we have about pathological liars, but experience can offer some clues. We now know that pathological lying is often spontaneous and unplanned. It is also something that occurs in individuals who have certain personality traits or even diagnoses. Some diagnoses that might include pathological lying includes but is not limited to:

  1. Personality Disorders:
    1. Antisocial Personality Disorder (better known as sociopathy)
    2. Borderline Personality Disorder
  2. Behavioral disorders:
    1. Conduct disorder (often diagnosed in children and teens who have criminal histories or demonstrate sociopathic traits such as animal cruelty, fire setting, and oppositional behaviors toward authority)
    2. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
    3. Oppositional defiant disorder or ODD

Certain personality traits where pathological lying may occur include:

  1. Narcissism
  2. Selfishness
  3. Abusive behavior
  4. Obsessive, controlling, and compulsive behaviors
  5. Impulsivity
  6. Jealous behavior
  7. Manipulative behaviors
  8. Deceptiveness
  9. Socially awkward, uncomfortable, or isolated
  10. Low self-esteem
  11. Tempermentalness
  12. Anger

It’s important to keep in mind that there are pathological liars who quite frankly just cannot help telling so many lies. Their world is much different from our world. But there are also liars who actually like telling them, are good at it, and do not regret anything they have ever said. There are some “skillful” liars who attempt to evade and harm everyone they come across in their lives. In fact, these type of liars would meet criteria for a diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder (or sociopathy) because they tell lies in charming, believable ways. They also tell truths in ways that give incorrect perspectives. In other words, they tell the truth in a misleading way, which causes 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 watching the victim run through the maze of confusion that gives gratification to some liars.

I encourage you to keep 6 things in mind as you deal with a 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 the liar doesn’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.
  2. Don’t forget that the liar lacks empathy: As hard as it is to believe, it is true. The liar doesn’t have any consciousness of how the lying behavior may make you feel. The liar doesn’t think before he lies: “oh, I better not say that or I could hurt that person or mislead them.” The liar doesn’t care anything about your feelings and never will. A question many parents have asked their child who lies is: “Why don’t you just tell me the truth. Why is that so hard!?” As easy as it is for you to think this way, it’s not that easy for the liar. The liar lacks the ability to consider what you might feel in response to their lie (which is empathy).
  3. Most “normal” liars feel guilty and are relieved when you change the topic or stop asking questions: This was an interesting clue that I learned about as I studied forensic psychology as a graduate student some years ago. I found that the pathological liar often shows no emotion when lying, which makes them believable. The person who is lying and has a sense of empathy or consciousness, will often show relief when the topic 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 may be lying and is well aware of the consequences of that lying. Most of us will relax when others cease from asking so many questions. A pathological liar is not phased.
  4. All liars don’t do the common things you think liars do: Believe it or not, liars don’t always touch their nose, shift in their seats or from one foot to the next, or even look sneaky. 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, and humor. Trust your instincts and discernment here.
  5. The most sneaky liars are manipulative: I once heard someone say “we all manipulate.” While this might be true (although I disagree), 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 study you. In fact, many pathological liars (and sociopaths who lie) use sexual or emotional arousal to distract you from the truth. Watch someone who seems to be directing their attention to you in such a way as to stimulate your arousal in some way. That arousal could be psychological (peaking your interest), emotional (causing you to feel connected to them), or sexual.
  6. Pathological liars exhibit strange behaviors: Can you remember how you felt, perhaps as a child or teen, after you were caught lying to a teacher, a parent, or friend? Did you feel guilty, sad, or afraid that the other person would no longer accept you? Some research suggests that some pathological liars show no discomfort when caught lying, while other studies suggest that liars may become aggressive and angry when caught. No pathological liar is the same.

As you can see, trying to understand the liar is as difficult as trying to understand how the world began. It’s something that requires a lot of study, patience, intuition or discernment, and wisdom. Research continues in trying to understand the mind and behavior of the pathological liar. Psychiatrists and mental health professionals continue to research the sociopath in order to understand why they do what they do, which often include lying.

As always, feel free to share your thoughts and experience.

I wish you well