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Pathological Lying : Its Link To Childhood Trauma

What Is A Pathological Liar?

“I’m not upset that you lied to me, I’m upset that from now on I can’t believe you.”
― Friedrich Nietzsche

Those who have suffered significant childhood trauma are more likely to become pathological liars / compulsive liars in adulthood than those who were lucky enough to experience a relatively stable upbringing (all else being equal).

A pathological liar is an individual who:

– does not give proper thought to the consequences of his/her lying

– lies spontaneously/impulsively

– lies even though he may receive no benefit whatsoever from the lie (indeed, many lies s/he tells will be self-damaging)

– has little or no control over his/her lying behavior

Roots Of Pathological Lying (Originally Called Pseudologia Phantastica) In Childhood:

Research has demonstrated that an individual is more likely to become a pathological liar in adulthood if that individual:

– grew up in a dysfunctional family

– suffered abuse as a child

– grew up in a family in which there was substance abuse

– lived in constant fear as a child and lying developed as a form of self-protection (e.g .to avoid severe punishment)

– grew up in a household in which dishonesty was commonplace (e.g. hypocrisy, false promises, parents lying to a child, family secrets)

The Link Between Pathological Lying And Personality Disorders:

We have seen in other articles on this site that several personality disorders are more likely to develop in adulthood if we have experienced significant childhood trauma. These include Sociopathic personality disorder,  narcissistic personality disorder,  borderline personality disorder, and histrionic personality disorder. Individuals suffering from such mental health problems stand a greater chance than average of developing pathological lying behavior.

Other Factors That May Contribute To The Development Of Pathological Lying Behavior:

These include neuropsychological problems and other mental health issues such as impulse control disorders such as kleptomania and pathological gambling.

Pathological Lying And Brain Differences:

Research carried out by Yang et al (2007) compared the brains of those who had been diagnosed as pathological liars and ‘normal’ controls’ using structural magnetic resonance imaging and found that those identified as pathological liars had on average 23-36% more white matter in the orbitofrontal, middle and inferior frontal gyri compared to those in the control group. The researchers suggest that this difference may predispose some people to become pathological liars.

Reasons To Lie:

Although pathological liars often lie for no rational or discernible reason (indeed, this is one of the most often cited definitions of pathological liars) research suggests that, when they do have a reason, these reasons include the following:

– to gain admiration eg they may claim they were a bomb disposal expert in the army and saved dozens of lives, whereas, in reality, they were the cook, experts only on beans on toast

– to manipulate and control others: sociopathic pathological liars are particularly likely to lie for this reason

– due to low self-esteem eg by vastly exaggerating their qualities and achievements whilst denying or minimizing their faults and failures

– they may lie to facilitate the use of the has the gaslighting technique

– to disguise failure e.g .claiming to have a first-class degree from Oxford University when, in reality, failing to get into any university whatsoever

– to avoid punishment

– to disguise lack of knowledge (e.g. claiming to have read Complete Works Of Shakespeare and written a dissertation based on these, when, in reality, has only read Act One, Scene One of Hamlet, failing to make any sense of it)

– to avoid embarrassment

– to entertain others and gain popularity (e.g. telling people stories about being a lion-tamer when really an insurance salesman)

– one leading theory suggests that the main, underlying cause of pathological lying is to try to avoid feelings of shame

N.B. Many people tell white lies connected to the type of lies above, but the pathological liar is differentiated from such people by his/her compulsion to lie, together with the extent and frequency of these lies; also, the pathological liar cannot control his/her lying behavior.

The Difference Between White Lies And Pathological Lies:

White Lies: are not malicious or intended to harm others; indeed, people frequently tell white lies in order to spare another’s feelings; indeed, the smooth running of society would be impossible if people could not tell white lies and the average person lies much more than one might think – one study (Feldman, 2002) found that during conversations of just 10 minutes 60% of individuals lied at least once).  However, this study also found that whilst there was no significant difference between how much males and females lied, on average, during the ten-minute conversations, there did appear to be a difference between the reasons why males and females lied: Females tended to lie to make the person they were talking to feel better whilst males tended to lie to make themselves look good.

Pathological Lies are frequent and compulsive. The pathological liar does not experience guilt about his/her continuous lying or fear the consequences of getting caught out. Pathological lies are often told irrespective of discernible reason or for any obvious gain; however, when there are reasons these can be very nefarious and exploitative of others. In extreme cases such lies may involve, for example,  claiming (falsely) one’s child has cancer in order to raise funds for ‘treatment’ (but, in fact, to be spent on foreign holidays, etc.) or inventing an entire false history so as to impress another in order to develop a relationship with and exploit, that person.

Should the term pathological liar designate a mental health disorder (or diagnostic entity) in its own right?

A study carried out by Curtis et al. (2020) and involving 807 individuals investigated whether pathological lying should be considered a diagnostic entity in its own right. The participants were required to provide answers to questions that were presented on two questionnaires:

  • Lying In Everyday Situations Scale
  • Distress Questionnaire-5


13% of the participants self-identified as pathological liars or stated that others had identified them as pathological liars.

Also, compared to non-pathological liars, pathological liars :

  • reported feeling more distress when lying
  • reported a greater degree of dysfunction in relation to social relationships, managing finances, vocation, and legal matters
  • reported being a greater danger to themselves and to others

The researchers came to the conclusion that their study supported the notion that pathological lying should become a diagnostic entity in its own right.


Signs Of Lying:

Signs of dishonesty may be hard to detect in, pathological liars as they do not experience lying to be very stressful (indeed, they may well enjoy it). However, non-pathological liars do find lying stressful and are therefore more apt to show the following signs:

Psychological research has shown the following to be signs that a person is lying:

– false smiling

– a slowed rate of speech (as having to think carefully about what s/he says)

– a heightened pitch of voice

– more pauses than usual (punctured by erms, ahs etc.)

– a mismatch between what is said and the person’s body language

– less head movement than usual

– the incongruity between what is said and the tone of voice

– an unconscious slight shake of the head (expressing ‘no’) whilst telling a lie

– less eye contact than usual

– clearing of the throat

– frequent glances to room exit (unconsciously motivated by the wish to avoid the stressful situation)

– feet pointing towards room exit (see explanation above)

– leaning back from the person s/he is lying to (again, unconsciously motivated by the wish to distance self from the stressful situation)

– less blinking than normal {infrequent blinking is a sign of deep concentration and such concentration is needed to avoid contradicting self)

– frequent swallowing

– less use of terms referring to self, such as me, my, mine, I, in order to try to distance self from the lie (again, unconsciously motivated)

Lying, Intelligence, and Creativity:

Good liars, on average, tend to have higher intelligence and creative ability than people not adept at lying. Indeed, children who learn to lie very early in life tend to be of higher than average intelligence, research suggests.

Implications For Polygraph Tests:

Polygraph (lie detector) tests do not directly measure lying but the stress is presumed to be caused by lying (e.g. elevated pulse rate, sweating, etc). This means someone who is telling the truth but is very nervous may fail a lie detector test, whereas, on the other hand, a skilled and practiced pathological liar who does not find lying stressful may pass the test even though s/he is lying.

Treatment And Therapies:

If there is an underlying disorder, such as personality disorder (see above) or substance misuse/adduction then this usually needs to be addressed first. If the treatment is successful, the pathological lying behavior may disappear

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) may be helpful, as may medications such as anti-depressants and antipsychotics. N.B. Disclaimer: Always consult a relevantly qualified and experienced professional when considering taking psychiatric medication.






Drew A. Curtis, Ph.D., and Christian L. Hart, Ph.D  Lying: Theoretical and Empirical Support for a Diagnostic Entity. Psych Res Clin Pract. 2020; 2:62–69; doi: 10.1176/appi.

Yang, Y., Raine, A., Narr, K., Lencz, T., LaCasse, L., Colletti, P., & Toga, A. (2007). Localisation of increased prefrontal white matter in pathological liars. British Journal of Psychiatry, 190(2), 174-175. doi:10.1192/bjp.bp.106.025056