Do you know a Pathological Liar?

15 October 2020 14:07

We all lie from time to time.

You may even have told a “white lie” this morning. The haircut “looked so amazing,” that birthday present was “just what I wanted.” 

“My camera isn’t working with Zoom,” you type in the group chat, socially distanced in your cocoon of a dye-job-gone-wrong and that embarrassing onesie that you mentioned to your mum that one time as a joke. 

Whilst white lies like these are a defence mechanism against embarrassment or awkwardness, some people lie just for the sake of lying – and take it to the extreme. They are in a sense, addicted to telling lies.



Mythomania, also known as Pathological Lying or Pseudologia Fantastica, is the persistent and compulsive tendency to tell lies out of habit. Pathological lying often occurs without a clear reason and lacks any external motivation to lie. It often starts as habitual or compulsive lying, which commonly begins in childhood and is related to other delinquent behaviour or as a means to assert autonomy in spite of lack of self-esteem. 

Pathological lies may be exaggerated and elaborated stories imagined experiences, or believed myths. Pathological liars create persuasive and interesting stories, sometimes bordering on the fantastic, that are often told to impress others. These stories may seem to be just on the edge of credibility and frequently involve themselves taking important and heroic roles. Questions or doubts are met with improvised elaborations in order to satisfy the listener. Consequently, new lies are needed to supplement the old, and the affected person might believe their deceptions to be truths.

Some common characteristics of pathological lying are:

  1. Lying without any benefit or reason – This may be a sign that lying has become reflexive and habitual.
  2. Telling lies that are complicated, dramatic, and detailed - The lies can gradually become more elaborate and dramatic, particularly if they are necessary to conceal a former lie. They often become complicated by unnecessary amounts of detail.
  3. Believing (or seeming to believe) their own lies - As pathological liars deceive effortlessly and frequently, they may not always recall what is real, and what they’ve made up.
  4. The lies may make the pathological liar seem like a hero or a victim - they sometimes tell lies to gain sympathy, admiration or acceptance from others.

Pathological lying or not?

People who frequently lie are not automatically pathological liars. The most distinctive feature of a pathological liar is that it doesn’t have a clear motive. As a consequence, a person who commonly exaggerates stories to make themselves appear more interesting or constantly lies to conceal mistakes is unlikely to be lying pathologically. These are clear motives that advance particular benefits. Pathological lies are easy for others to disprove, which can ultimately be damaging to the person who tells them. For example, the individual may make false accusations or grandiose claims about their past that are easy for others to verify. 

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A sign of something deeper

Whilst it may be a serious impediment to everyday living, pathological lying is not recognized as a clinical disorder on its own. However, it may well be a sign of an underlying mental health problem. 

Whilst pathological lying is included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition (DSM-5), it is only listed as a symptom of other disorders. These can be as diverse as personality (antisocial, narcissistic, and histrionic) disorders, fictitious disorder, or even psychopathy.

However, it’s important not to jump to these conclusions by oneself. Simply because someone seems to lie frequently, does not make them a pathological liar. By a similar token, having a mental disorder does not mean that someone will have mythomania, and having mythomania does not mean that someone has an antisocial, narcissistic or histrionic disorder. Psychological issues can be extraordinarily complex, and any such diagnosis should always be the domain of properly trained clinical psychologists. 

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