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Why Liars Tell Pointless Lies

Finding value in lying, and attention, where others would not.

Key points

  • Pathological liars often tell lies that seem pointless.
  • If we look closer, their lies are often motivated by internal needs.
  • Many pathological liars tell lies because they ultimately want attention from others.

I’ve asked hundreds of people if they have ever known a pathological liar. The vast majority have said yes. One of the themes that regularly emerges when people discuss encounters with pathological liars is that they seem to lie for no reason at all. That is, their lies seem to be completely pointless and serve no purpose. I suspect this might not be true.

Pathological Lying Cases

My colleague Drew Curtis and I have studied pathological lying very intensively for many years and this recurrent theme of pointless lying bears out not only in the anecdotal accounts we record but also in the historical records of pathological liars from over a century ago.

In one record of pathological lying dating back to the early 1900s, the psychiatrist, William Healy, wrote of a young patient, “During all our acquaintance with Adolf we have known his word to be absolutely untrustworthy. Many times he has descended upon his friends with quite unnecessary stories, leading to nothing but a lowering of their opinion of him. Repeatedly his concoctions have been without ascertainable purpose.” (p. 159)

Almost 100 years later, psychologist Cheryl Birch wrote of a young female pathological liar, “First, it is clear that her lying was never initiated for any of the most common external motives. Her lies were not altruistic, white lies, and she did not lie to obtain money, sex, or a higher title (power) in her external environment.”

The clear suggestion in both cases was that pathological lying was entirely unreasonable. The lies were pointless and irrational. They were pathological.

In a more recent study that I conducted with my colleague Renee Beach, we asked 251 people if they had ever met or known someone who they considered to be a pathological liar. Over 91 percent of people answered yes.

When we asked them what proportion of the lies seemed to be told for no apparent reason or motive, our participants estimated 49 percent. Taken together, there seems to be a fair amount of consensus that pathological liars tell lies that in great measure seem to be purposeless.

Motivations for Pathological Liars

However, it is important to consider that an inability to identify rational motives for a lie does not necessarily mean that the liar had no motivation for their dishonesty. The fact that an outside observer sees no reason for an action does not mean that reasons are absent. After all, many of our fundamental motivations in life are internal states that cannot be detected by the outside observer. For instance, the psychiatrist Charles Ford argued that a warped need for self-esteem may drive some people to lie pathologically.

I agree with Ford. I believe that pathological liars usually do have purposes for their lies. After all, people rarely do anything for no reason at all. Even if one is not consciously aware of the triggers for their behavior, a trigger must exist. No effect is without a cause.

However, the reasons for pathological lies are likely foreign to most of us. Most of us can usually get what we want without having to resort to lying. It may be that pathological liars want many of the same things you and I want such as connection, love, and a sense of value, but they haven’t figured out an honest way to get them.

Attention

In our book Pathological Lying, Curtis and I argue that pathological liars are often lying for attention. Most people desire attention, and they have perfectly honest ways of getting it. They behave and present themselves in such ways that the desired attention naturally comes their way.

When people cannot get the attention they desire, they sometimes go to extremes. They engage in provocative behaviors, outlandish presentations, absurd antics, or even put themselves in danger to have people simply pay attention to them. Many pathological liars seem to tell untruths aimed at garnering attention.

Some common themes we have found in our research are people dishonestly presenting themselves as heroes or as brave victims. In the heroic examples, we find pathological liars portraying themselves as CIA operatives hunted by multiple enemy states, Navy SEALS who rescued hostages under enemy fire, or vigilantes who solved crimes and outwitted the mafia. In the victim roles, people have woven fabricated tales about being kidnapped by gangs, being chased by police, falling ill with life-threatening ailments, or even being attacked by alligators and sharks. In all of those examples, the pathological liars have seemingly wanted people to notice them, to find them compelling, or to see them as important.

Tripartite Theory and Pathological Lying

So, are the lies that pathological liars tell truly pointless falsehoods? I submit that they are not. According to the Tripartite Theory of Dishonesty, people lie when they expect to derive value from lying and when they see the expected costs to be low or at least tolerable. Pathological liars may simply see value in lying (misplaced as it may be) where others do not. Additionally, they may not foresee the grave cost of telling lies that cause others to remain honest.

In other words, pathological liars have their reasons. They are simply reasons that most of us find preposterous.

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