Signs of Pathological Lying

Updated August 31, 2022
Husband and wife having serious conversation

Have you ever told a lie? If you're like most people, you've fibbed here or there. However, there are some people who lie more substantially or more frequently than others. Perhaps you have someone in your life who is constantly lying and making up stories. This habit is often referred to as pathological lying.

There are common signs that can help you identify a pathological liar. When you know the signs, you may be able to identify someone who has has this type of lying disorder. Knowing the signs can also help you protect yourself from being misled.

What Is Pathological Lying?

Most of us know someone who regularly fabricates stories or exxagerates them. Maybe you even know someone who makes up stories and believes them. Are they a patholical liar? Do they have a clinical condition or a specific mental illness? Or maybe they are just a compulsive liar. There is limited research on this type of behavior, but there are a few things we know from the studies that do exist.

Pathological Lying vs. Mental Illness

Pathological lying, also known as chronic or habitual lying, is not a psychological disorder. However, many believe it to be a symptom of other mental illnesses, such as personality disorders. A landmark study from the American Journal of Psychiatry (AJP) identified a number of personality disorders that were associated with lying, such as antisocial, histrionic, and obsessive-compulsive personality disorders.

In addition, pathologically lying is a common symptom in other mental health conditions, such as borderline personality disorder and narcissistic personality disorder. Some research suggests that these patterns of lying are associated with different goals, such as boosting one's own self-image or manipulating another for personal gain.

However, that does not mean that everyone with a mental health disorder is a pathological liar. And, if you catch a person in a lie and that person has been diagnosed with a mental health condition, it's not safe to assume that the lie is a symptom of their condition. It might just means that they are human, like the rest of us.

Pathological Lying vs. Compulsive Lying

Pathological liars and compulsive liars are often generalized as the same because people with both of these conditions tell frequent fibs. However, there are some noteworthy differences.

Some research suggests that pathological liars sometimes believe their own lies, because they may be living in a different mental reality. On the other hand, compulsive liars often believe their lies to be untrue, but tell the lie regardless.

Compulsive liars often seem to lack self-control because they lie impulsively. Some researchers believe that pathological liars also lie out of impulse depending on whether the behavior is a symptom of a mental illness. However, others believe that pathological liars have more control over when they lie, such as by lying to manipulate others.

Signs That Someone May Be a Pathological Liar

Although many psychologists have encountered people they believe to be pathological liars, the lack of research has made it difficult for researchers to document a concrete list of signs and symptoms. And, many don't even agree on the exact definition of what classifies someone as a pathological liar.

Young adults hanging out talking

For example, the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law (JAAPL) classifies pathological lying as deception that is persistent, disproportionate, and pervasive. In addition, the journal notes that this particular form of lying is not motivated by any reward or external factors.

Despite the fact that researchers might not agree on a single definition, it has been noted that pathological liars may share common traits.

Attention-Seeking Behavior

Some people believe that pathological lying is part of attention-seeking behavior. Individuals who want to have all eyes on them wherever they go may have to make up stories to capture people's interest. This type of behavior can often be seen in people with histronic personality dirorder.

There are many reasons why somebody might lie because they crave attention. For example, it might help boost their self-esteem and make them feel important when people are interested in what they have to say.

However, if a person lies and gains the attention they were hoping for, then they might be motivated to lie again. This can lead to maladaptive patterns of behavior.

Poor Self-Esteem

According to the Journal of Frontiers in Psychology, low self-esteem is associated with several different behavioral changes. Research shows that low self-esteem has been linked to an increased risk of developing symptoms of anxiety and depression, learning disorders, antisocial behavior, and other health concerns.

For this reason, some people may demonstrate symptoms of pathological lying because they are trying to boost their self-esteem. They may exaggerate accomplishments, tell fibs about the fun things they did over the weekend, or make up stories about family members in order to make themselves feel better.

Low self-esteem doesn't always indicate that a person constantly lies. Some people with low self-esteem will stretch the truth every now and then just like everyone else, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they are a pathological liar.

Extravagant Storytelling

Three teens laughing and joking while looking at their phone

Some pathological liars often tell unbelievable stories, and the lies they contain may seem absolutely pointless. According to the JAAPL study mentioned above, people experience pathological lying because they lack a sense of control over the impulse.

For example, a person might experience an increase in heart rate or other symptoms of anxiety when they become anxious because they can't stop the behavior from happening. Similarly, a person might pathologically lie because they just can't help themselves.

Types of Pathological Lies

If someone experiences a lack of self-control and regularly tells stories, they may fall into one of three categories. People often make up stories to highlight their attributes, shine a light on their shortcomings, or position themselves as a victim.

Lies That Make the Person Look Better

A pathological liar may never admit that their life is difficult. Instead, they will either only discuss the happy times or make up stories to replace unfortunate events. This is a form of self-aggrandizement.

As mentioned, a person may repeatedly deceive others as a way to boost their own self-image. They may want to seem like the hero in every story and have others applaud them for their accomplishments.

If you notice someone is constantly telling stories that make their life look more extravagant or exciting than it actually is, this may be a sign that the person is a pathological liar.

Lies That Make the Person Look Worse

Not all people tell tall tales to get others to think that they have bustling social lives and incredible adventures. In fact, a pathological liar may even tell lies that are self-incriminating.

For example, they might share a story about a crime they committed or a harsh prank they pulled on someone they were upset with. However, these stories might just be one of their many lies.

Why would someone want to do that? According to research from the AJP study, the reward for pathological liars is found in the act of lying itself. They are not tempted to lie for an external reward, which means that expressing a positive lie about themselves might feel just as good as expressing a negative one.

Lies That Show They Are a Constant Victim

Pathological liars may also paint themselves in the light of victimhood in order to gain attention. For example, they might tell fibs about suffering from rare and chronic illnesses to gain sympathy from those around them. Or, they might constantly share stories about how they are extremely unlucky and managed to get struck by lightning twice in one day.

If a person experiences symptoms of pathological lying due to a mental illness, they might tell lies in order to achieve the spotlight among friends and family. However, if a person is a pathological liar and doesn't have an existing mental health condition, they might just be lying because they can't control the impulse.

If the number of horrible events that have happened to a person is greater than those of the Baudelaire orphans in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, this may be a sign of pathological lying.

How to Identify and Deal With a Pathological Liar

Since behavior experts do not agree on a single definition of pathological lying, there are no clear traits, signs, or motives to look out for to label someone a pathological liar. As a result, it can be difficult to identify a pathological liar.

In fact, humans as a whole aren't very good lie detectors in general. Part of what can make pathological lying so scary is that you might not be able to recognize when someone is lying to you.

Although there are no clear signs to look out for, there are some aspects of a person's life that may help you get more information. For instance, you might want to learn a bit about a person's history or their psychological state, as these can be indicators of a potential lying problem.

Know Their Personal History

Knowing someone's personal history can help you see patterns in their lying. Some people will only lie about the present, while others will make up lies about the past as if they were trying to create a completely new life for themselves.

For example, if you went to middle school with someone in your social circle, and then that person starts to tell stories about how they went to a completely different middle school, that may be something you want to pay attention to. This change to their personal history might be a sign of pathological lying.

However, it is not a guarantee that a person is a pathological liar just because they tweak their backstory. This person might be trying to forget aspects of the past or reinvent themselves in a new light.

Understand Their Mental State

Many people habitually lie due to a mental illness or have a skewed sense of reality as a result of their mental illness. This can distort perceptions, blur the lines of reality, and make it difficult for them to understand what is false and what is true.

Suggest Professional Help

If you suspect someone you love has a pattern of pathological lying, seek help from a mental health professional. A therapist, counselor, or social worker will be able to help your loved one cope with their behavior patterns. And, they will be able to help them understand more about why they are lying. Together, they can create a plan to move forward.

If the person who constantly lies will not seek help, it's okay to set your own boundaries in order to avoid being hurt. You might want to help this person in your life manage their behaviors, but your well-being is just as important. If it's possible, continue to have the conversation with them until they are ready to reach out for help.

Signs of Pathological Lying