The Human Equation

Serial killers, self-reliance, and everything in between

The Pathological Liar's Club

First clue to future female serial killers?

One thing recently struck me as I was reading about a series of female serial killers. Some came from benign backgrounds; most came from unpleasant ones. Some seemed normal as children; others exhibited red flags so bright they should have glowed. However, one commonality kept appearing. By adolescence, almost all of them were pathological liars.

Of course, we all lie. We lie to stay (or get out of) trouble. We tell "white lies"to spare another person's feelings. However, pathological lying is quantitatively and qualitatively distinct from ‘normal’ lying. First of all, it is both excessive and chronic; most pathological liars begin by adolescence and don't stop. In other words, it seems to become a personality treat rather than an episode or response.

But it's not just the amount of lying that distinguishes pathological liars. It's also what they lie about. These lies are almost always dazzling or fantastical and often develops into a complicated system of deception. Genene Jones, for example, claimed that she was related to Mickey Dolenz, leader of the super pop group The Monkees and stated that she would frequently chat with him on the phone. As a young adolescent, Kristen Gilbert claimed to be related to Lizzie Borden. All of these lies tend to dazzle others, at least in the short term. The imaginative fluency of the lies tends to capture public attention, at least in the short term. However, upon closer scrutiny, the lies can often be easily discredited, and for this reason the lying is destructive to the liar.

See All Stories In

Difficult People

Manipulation comes in many forms.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

Perhaps the most distinguishing feature between pathological and "normal lying" is the lack of an obvious motive. Most lies are goal directed and for a reason i.e., material gain, avoid punishment, allude  responsibility. However, with pathological lying, the motivation comes primarily from within - to get attention, tell something interesting, or make themselves appear special in some way. Apparently, the social attention attracted by their lies may provide them with a transient escape from a reality that is perceived as painful or boring.

I once worked with a woman who I now believe was a pathological liar. Extremely bright, funny, and articulate, it confused me at the time as to how she she could tell such obvious fibs with such convincing details. Not that her lies were initially transparent; in fact, if I hadn't spent so much time with her, I would have been completely convinced her fabrications were true. Over time, however, it became painfully obvious that her need for admiration and prestige led her to concoct elaborate (and spontaneous) fantasies about the people she knew (celebrities, government officials) and the things she had done (often contradicting herself about her past achievements and activities).

Now this person was not a serial killer. And the people who knew her accepted this "quirk" in her personality; in fact, her "harmless and entertaining stories" (as they were described by tolerant friends) became somewhat of a private joke among her colleagues. However, looking back, I wonder what internal demons drove her to make up stories that, while entertaining, undermined her credibility. And whether those lies are the first language of future serial killers.

Joni E. Johnston, Psy.D, is the author of Complete Idiot's Guide to Psychology.

more...

Subscribe to The Human Equation

Current Issue

Love & Lust

Who says marriage is where desire goes to die?