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The Narcissist and His Lies: How They're Different

The psychology of deception and the narcissist's skillful mirages.

Photograph by StockSnap. Copyright Free. Pixabay.
Source: Photograph by StockSnap. Copyright Free. Pixabay.

I knew that he and I had a different relationship to the truth but I didn’t really understand it. We joked about it—how I was a moralist and he was more of a relativist—but I didn’t get what motivated him. Because he had been a lawyer for over 30 years, I chalked it up to the hidden costs of his profession—that peculiar zone that resides between truth and what might be true. He reminded me that “Even the Wolfman needs a defense” and that the last thing a defense attorney wants to know is whether his client is actually guilty. But when I caught him in a small lie, he’d counter by saying he didn’t lie but that I simply asked the wrong question. Had I asked the ‘right’ one, he implied, he would have told me the truth. I thought it was weird and somewhat manipulative but I didn’t see it as important; after all, he had promised never to lie to me. The minister who married us actually talked about our divergent ways of seeing truth. And I somehow thought this was behavior he’d gotten used to in his first, failed marriage. Of course, I also believed his version of that story too. That’s where I was wrong: The narcissist’s lies are the heart of the matter.

When you talk to people about the narcissists in their lives, either present or past, it’s often the lies they focus on. (I’m using the male pronoun here but women are narcissists too so feel free to switch up.) Those unlucky enough to marry and then divorce a narcissist will find themselves spending a fortune on attorney’s fees, rebutting total falsehoods, many of them easily shown to be lies. That’s what’s so maddening and counterintuitive: The narcissist doesn’t care about discovery, whether legal or the ordinary kind. He cares about promoting his truth even if it is a bald-faced lie and everyone will know it soon enough. And he will brook no challenges and will never admit it was a lie to begin with.

It is, as many survivors of these relationships will attest, a mind-bending experience. And that’s why the narcissist’s lies are worth looking into.

Lies and the Rest of Us

Theorists believe that human lying coincided with the advent of language—a way of gaining status and power by either inspiring others or manipulating situations and people without the use of force, which, when you think about it, makes a lot of sense. Granted, this step forward in supposedly civilized behavior has its price—lies in politics are its modern-day offspring—but one supposes it’s better than pummeling each other with clubs and sticks.

Can you live your life without ever telling a lie? It would appear not, though some of us are more fluid and more frequent liars than others. Some may actually put a premium on truth-telling while others are inspired less by their love of truth than by their worry about getting caught in a lie and shamed. Still, it’s estimated that most of us lie almost every day. Here’s where it gets tricky, and the stream of morality gets a bit murkier than some of us would like, though not all. (Yes, a high-in-narcissistic-traits alert.)

Not all lies are equal as both the culture and research assert; in fact, small children even know the difference. There are the “white” lies you tell to spare someone’s feelings—prosocial falsehoods—like saying someone looks good when she or he doesn’t, thanking a person for a gift you really didn’t like, plying the host or hostess with praise after the worst dinner you ever ate, or paying someone an unwarranted compliment. Research shows that children as young as 3 do know the difference between these lies and what experts call antisocial lies—falsehoods that are told to benefit the self at the expense of others—which they know to be wrong.

One study published in 2010 showed that children actually increase their use of prosocial lies as they get older. Of the Chinese children studied, faced with the choice of saying something impolite or unpleasant, 40 percent of 7-year-olds lied, compared with 50 percent of 9-year-olds and 60 percent of 11-year-olds. The study involved children thanking a teacher for an unappreciated gift and in this case, the researchers also probed why the children lied. It turned out that while younger children lied to avoid possible repercussions such as the teacher getting angry with them, older children lied for prosocial reasons.

The culture distinguishes between these kind of falsehoods and those that are meant to evade responsibility or blame (“The fact that I didn’t finish the report in time had nothing to do with the team’s failure”; “I never had sex with that woman”), place blame on an innocent party (“Timmy broke the vase and I didn’t”; “The fender wasn’t dented until you drove the car”), or aggrandize the self. This part deserves more than an example or two in parentheses since it’s the biggie which includes bragging about things you didn’t achieve, lying outright about who you are, and more. Yes, this is narcissistic territory but also that of the very insecure and those looking to gain an advantage. For example, a story in Time magazine several years ago reported that a survey from CareerBuilder revealed that more than half the candidates lied on their resumés, most usually to embellish either skills or previous job titles or simply to make themselves look more important.

And then there’s the cautionary tale of Melissa Howard, who ran for office in Florida, asserting that she had a college degree from Miami University of Ohio. It turns out the school had no record of her, so what did she do? She doubled down, flew out to Ohio, and posted a photo of herself on Facebook holding a diploma. Only thing was that the diploma was fake.

Here’s where it gets weird and murky; why would you continue to lie when exposure was 100 percent guaranteed? Answering that question takes a bit of scientific insight.

What Science Knows About Liars and Lying

  • Not only do most people lie but they do so with surprising frequency.

That’s what a 1996 paper by fellow blogger Dr. Bella DePaulo and others showed. Their theoretical starting point was that the self we present to the world is curated and edited; when we present those meant-for-the-public selves honestly, we highlight the relevant parts. But when we use deception to edit that self—such as by giving yourself a degree you didn’t earn—we are working to create a false impression. Their method was to recruit 77 college students and 70 people from the community and have each person keep a week-long diary of social interactions and to note the number of lies told in each. Among the college students, a lie was told in 1 out of 3 interactions; among community members, it was 1 out of 5. Further, only 1 percent of college students claimed to have told nary a lie; that was true of 9 percent of the community members. Confirming our deepest suspicions about gender differences, women told more prosocial lies and men more self-serving ones.

  • Young adults lie with greater facility than older adults.

That’s what a group of Dutch researchers found in a paper that, yes, used Pinocchio in the title! It was a random survey of over 1,000 people ages 6 to 66, and looked at frequency of lies and skill at lying as well. The skill part needs some elucidating since there’s research that shows that lying taxes the brain and requires more activity in the prefrontal cortex than telling the truth. Given that executive capacity is still lacking in young children and declines with age, researchers assumed that they’d see similar abilities and frequency at both ends of the age spectrum. And, indeed, they did. Young adults (18-29) were the most skilled liars, although adolescents lied more often. While adolescents lied 2.8 times in 24 hours, the average number of lies per day across all ages was two.

  • Lying changes the brain and a small lie facilitates a larger one.

You know how people are always saying that there’s a slippery slope when someone lies? Well, researchers Neil Garrett and others found it’s true in a study published in 2016 in Nature Neuroscience. Using brain scans, they found that activity in the amygdala actually decreased as the subjects engaged in self-serving deceptions, facilitating bigger lies as time went on. Put another way, while the first self-serving lie may evoke a negative emotional response emanating from the amygdala, the second and following lies tamp that negative feeling down, as shown by the decreased activity in the amygdala.

These findings illuminate why the narcissist is blissfully unconcerned with being found out.

Why Narcissists Lie

The current theory is that all of the narcissist’s behaviors are unconsciously motivated and driven by a wound that fills him with shame and that he hides from the world; hiding that damaged part of himself leads him to self-aggrandize and exaggerate his talents, prowess, and almost everything else. Seen in that way, lies—or hiding the truth—are central to the narcissist’s identity. Of course, he doesn’t see it that way because all of his experiences are filtered through the hidden damage; instead, he will see it as his truth. And when it comes to his truth, as Dr. Joseph Burgo points out in The Narcissist You Know, he will take vindictive action if he perceives a threat. As Burgo writes. “He doesn’t see himself as a liar but rather as an embattled defender of the ‘truth’ as he has come to see it. As hard as it may be for most of us to believe, the Extreme Narcissist who lies doesn’t always do so in a self-aware way, consciously attempting to disguise the truth.” Burgo explains that he lies to support a “defensive identity,” or a “nonstop effort to bolster lies erected against shame, insisting that they reflect reality.”

How the Narcissist Defends His “Truth”

The short answer is any way he can, and no-holds-barred. Again, since the narcissist doesn’t care about being caught in a lie and is tone-deaf to emotional consequences, thanks to his deficient empathy, he will lie about everything and anything. He will defend by shifting blame (“I wouldn’t have had to say these private things about you if I hadn’t been provoked” or “You didn’t ask me the right question so the burden’s on you”), gaslighting, or smearing his victim’s reputation by calling him or her a liar or worse. What to do? Dr, Burgo’s sense of direction is fine: “Take the high ground and stick to the truth; don’t speak ill of your enemy unless you have to.” Indeed.

Recovering From a Narcissist’s Lies

One way is to recognize that they are, indeed, different from the lies most people tell. That’s why I adduced all the science I did. The mirage and the miasma are tough stuff but try not to beat yourself up while taking responsibility for what you didn’t let yourself look at. Talk to a therapist if you are feeling stuck. Try not to generalize about apples because of this one bad one and, at the same time, recognize that there are good people out there. Really.

The narcissist’s tangled tissue of lies—beginning with love-bombing and quick declarations of love—only becomes crystal clear after the fact, thanks to 20/20 hindsight. What you or I can say is this: The narcissist’s lies are in a category of their own.

Copyright © Peg Streep 2018


Xu, Fen, Xuehua Bao, Genyue Fu, Victoria Talwar, and Kang Lee. “Lying and Truth in Children: From Concept to Action,” Child Development (2010) vol. 81 (21), 581-596.

DePaulo, Bella, Deborah A. Kashy, Susan E. Kirkendol, Melissa M. Wyer, and JenniferEpstein,“Lying in Everyday Life.” (1996) Journal of personality and social psychology. 70. 979-995.

Debey, Evelyne, Maarten De Schryver, Gordon D. Logan, Gordon, Kristina Suchotzki, and Bruno Verschuere, “ From Junior to Senior Pinocchio: A cross-sectional lifespan investigation of deception.” (2015) Acta Psychologica. 10.1016/j.actpsy.2015.06.007.

Garrett, Neil, Stephanie C. Lazzaro, Dan Ariely, and Tali Sharot,” The Brain Adapts to Dishonesty, Nature Neuroscience (2016 ) 19:1727-1732

Burgo, Joseph. The Narcissist You Know: Defending Yourself against Extreme Narcissists in an All-About Me Age. New York: Touchstone, 2016.

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