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Why Pathological Liars Keep Lying

Lessons from the Tripartite Theory of Dishonesty.

When I ask people if they have ever met a pathological liar, most say that they have. They report that these people spew falsehoods with no apparent concern for the truth, no obvious gain, no sense of how lying might undermine their relationships, and no obvious sense of guilt or shame.

In his book, Duped, my friend Dr. Tim Levine makes the case that pathological liars are non-delusional people who are grounded in reality, yet habitually and chronically lie for no apparent reason. They lie when the truth would work just fine and they lie without regard for the negative outcome the lying will likely cause in their lives. I think Tim is right. However, my sense is that pathological liars do have some very good reasons for lying, we just don’t happen to see the value.

2 Things That Motivate Liars

In our forthcoming book, Pathological Lying, Dr. Drew Curtis and I reviewed all of the case studies of pathological liars spanning back to 1895. In most of those cases, the lies seemed to be driven by two motivations.

The first motivation seems obvious: material gain. Habitual liars repeatedly deceive to get money, desired objects, sexual partners, etc. People lie to get material rewards. The second motivation seems to be attention. It is astonishing how many pathological liars tell falsehoods about all of the impressive things they have supposedly accomplished, famous people that they allegedly know, unbelievable heroic feats they have displayed, or astonishing obstacles they have had to overcome. They lie to impress.

But attention doesn’t only come from lies meant to impress. Pathological liars also spin tales of extreme victimhood. They portray themselves as pitiful souls who deserve all the world’s compassionate care. We uncovered cases of people who lied about being abused, abandoned, shot, accosted, kidnapped, or the like.

When Do Liars Lie?

People don’t seem to lie at random. They lie to serve some purpose, whether we can discern that purpose or not. I am of the belief that pathological liars broadly lie for the same reasons everyone else does. These motivations can be understood in the context of the Tripartite Theory of Dishonesty. According to this theory, people lie when:

  1. Lying seems beneficial.
  2. The potential negative consequences of lying seem bearable.
  3. They can morally justify their lie.

First, people lie when they perceive the utility of lying. When someone sees that lying will allow them to get something they want, and they perceive that honesty won’t, they are inclined to lie. Arguably, pathological liars simply see opportunities for gains that most of us do not. For most of us, the attention and material gains we acquire through honesty are adequate, so the utility of gaining more through lying just doesn’t even cross our minds. Pathological liars, on the other hand, see opportunities for dishonest gains repeatedly.

Second, people lie when they perceive the probability and consequences of being detected as acceptable. Most people avoid lying regularly because they don’t want to be caught and punished for lying. Pathological liars may simply not foresee the risk of negative consequences of their deception. Alternatively, they may just feel certain that they’ll get away with their lies, so they take the risk of lying often. They might also perceive the consequences of their discovery as tolerable, believing that others will simply forgive them for being dishonest.

Third, people lie when they can tolerate any internal negative feelings such as guilt or shame that might follow their dishonesty. Most people feel bad when they lie, so they avoid doing it or they find ways to rationalize it. It could be that some pathological liars just don’t feel too bothered by their own deceit. Perhaps the moral norms that most of us internalized early in life simply did not imprint into the minds of pathological liars.

Or maybe they are more adept at making moral adjustments, thinking to themselves, “this isn’t really that bad” or “they don’t really deserve the truth.” Or, perhaps, the thoughts about the rightness or wrongness of their actions just don't occur to them when they are lying, so they are unfettered by internal moral judgments. One could imagine myriad reasons pathological liars simply avoid feeling negative about their lies. We have found that some pathological liars are often bothered by their lying in retrospect, but we do not yet know how they feel at the moment of the lie.

My argument is that pathological liars lie for the same reasons that all of us lie. They see lying as beneficial, they can accept the potential negative consequences of lying, and any internal feelings of shame or guilt don’t seem to be enough to stop them. The difference between pathological liars and the rest of us seems to be that pathological liars meet these three criteria much more often than the rest of us.

This and other topics are covered in my forthcoming books, Big Liars and Pathological Lying, published by the American Psychological Association.

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