Understanding Compulsive Liars

Both Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair, journalists at prestigious publications, fabricated their stories. Their lying was more than laziness. This type of lying may fill a need to be someone else due to a low self-esteem.

By Chris Jozefowicz, published on October 1, 2003 - last reviewed on June 30, 2005

In Shattered Glass, Chloë Sevigny plays another patsy -- but this
time her betrayer is a prevaricating journalist. Caitlin Avey, Sevigny's
character, is a Washington, D.C., magazine writer who is tricked by
friend and fellow scribe Stephen Glass. The movie is based on the story
of real-life fraud Stephen Glass, who was a hot young property on the
1990s magazine scene until his editors at The New Republic realized in
1998 that many of his stories were in fact elaborately constructed,
imaginative fakes. He was publicly denounced, pundits fretted about the
state of journalism -- and Glass bounced back with a book deal soon

Lying is the cardinal sin of journalism. Yet, as the uproar
over errant New York Times reporter Jayson Blair demonstrated, it may
also be alarmingly common. For both Glass and Blair, lying was more than
laziness and corner-cutting. It was a way of life. Glass also worked hard
at his fabrications, creating faux Web sites and enlisting his brother to
fool fact-checkers. So why did they do it?

Robert Reich, M.D., a New York City psychiatrist and expert in
psychopathology, says compulsive lying has no official diagnosis.
Instead, intentional dissimulation -- not the kind associated with dementia
or brain injury -- is associated with a range of diagnoses, such as
antisocial, borderline and narcissistic personality disorders. When it
comes to compulsive liars, says Charles Ford, a professor of psychiatry
at the University of Alabama Birmingham, "words seem to flow out of their
mouths without them thinking about it." Ford, the author of Lies! Lies!!
Lies!!! The Psychology of Deceit, says that pathological liars may slide
easily from the notion that something could have happened to the
conviction that it did. When pressed, many will admit what they are
saying isn't true.

To understand the mind of a fake, Reich suggests considering what
lying does for the liar. Deceit as a means to an end -- like lying to get a
job -- is easy to comprehend. Much harder to spot, he says, is lying "for
primary gains": deceptions that create a different sense of self without
any immediate benefit. "It has to do with self-esteem," Reich says. "You
want to be like someone else because you aren't very happy with
yourself." Glass may be one of these "primary" liars. Former colleagues
describe him as desperate for approval; in his novel, The Fabulist, the
"Stephen Glass" character says his lies are driven by his need to be seen
as infallible, as interesting, as perfect. (The flesh-and-blood Glass had
nothing to do with the bio-pic).

Perhaps Glass's fantastic stories were accepted because they
satisfied readers' (and editors') longings for a stranger and more
exciting world. But if he's just another lonely journalist wanting to be
loved, why are we so fascinated by him? Since most of us feel constrained
by rules, regulations and propriety, Glass's flamboyant fabrications
provide a vicarious thrill. "At some level we are fascinated by people
who do whatever they want," Reich says. "We kind of envy them."