Pathological lying isn’t a clinical diagnosis, though it can sometimes be a symptom of other issues, such as a personality disorder or a manic episode. But some people get so accustomed to lying that they do so even when there is no clear purpose, and when their lies are easily disproven, leaving everyone scratching their heads over the point of their deceptions.
Over the years, I’ve worked with a number of these people — so-called pathological or compulsive liars — and gained some insight into the way they think. Believe it or not, their lying makes some sense, when you look at it through their eyes.
1. The lie does matter … to them. The number one reason people lie when it just doesn’t matter is because they actually do think it matters. While everyone around them thinks it’s an inconsequential issue, the liar believes it is critically important. They may be putting undeserved emphasis or pressure on themselves, or on the issue, but you won’t know unless you ask something like, “It seems like this issue is really important to you — why?”
2. Telling the truth feels like giving up control. Often, people tell lies because they are trying to control a situation and exert influence toward getting the decisions or reactions they want. The truth can be “inconvenient” because it might not conform to their narrative.
3. They don’t want to disappoint you. It may not feel like it to you, but people who tell lie after lie are often worried about losing the respect of those around them. They want you to like them, be impressed, and value them. And they’re worried that the truth might lead you to reject or shame them.
4. Lies snowball. I remember a cartoon my kids watched years ago about how lies grow. We tell a little bitty lie, but then to cover that lie, we have to tell another one, then another, and another — each gets bigger and bigger. Finally, we’re arguing about the color of the sky, because to admit anything creates the potential of the entire house of cards tumbling. If a chronic liar admits to any single lie, they feel like they’re admitting to being a liar, and then you’ll have reason to distrust them.
5. It’s not a lie to them. When we are under pressure, our thinking about the big picture can be challenged. Our memory of things is actually quite unreliable: Multiple studies demonstrate that our memories are influenced by many things, that they change over time, and that they are essentially reconstructed each time we think about them. Often, repetitive liars feel so much pressure in the moment that their memory becomes simply unreliable. When they say something, it’s often because they genuinely believe, at that moment, that it is the truth. Their memory has been overwhelmed by stress, current events, and their desire to find a way to make this situation work. Sometimes, this can become so severe that the person almost seems to have created a complete alternate world in their head, one that conforms to their moment-by-moment beliefs and needs.
6. They want it to be true. Finally, the liar might want their lie to be true so badly that their desire and needs again overwhelm their instinct to tell the truth. “Be the change you want to see in the world,” Gandhi never actually said. But sometimes, liars hope that they can make something come true by saying it over and over, and by believing it as hard as they can. In today’s environment of “alternative facts,” it’s hard not to see this as somewhat justified.
People, by and large, are honest by default. Most people tell the truth most of the time. Our very capacity for language is built on an assumption of honesty — we agree that the words we use mean the same thing consistently, and we don’t use words deceptively because this would render language and the very communication of ideas impossible. Some people lie more than others, but even frequent liars are actually honest most of the time. But it stands out dramatically when their deceptions are so blatant, easily disproven, and seemingly unimportant.
As frustrating as it is when people tell whoppers, we can begin to understand the motivations behind them. Asking the person, “Why is this situation so important to you?” or, “Why do you need me to see this the same way you do?” can be a useful, non-threatening way to get at the foundations of stress and desperation that often underlie deceptions. Don’t ask, “Why are you lying?” We need to remember that the person is often motivated by not being seen as a liar, and this question paints them into a corner.
Of course, understanding a big fibber’s motivations and having empathy in such situations is valuable. But to function effectively in the real world, we also need people to learn to be more honest. Communicating empathy for a person’s desperation can be a valuable tool to give them permission to tell the truth. And then, recognizing and reinforcing when a person does tell the truth is a powerful way to get more truth-telling. It shows people that the truth is not scary, and that the world won’t end when the truth comes out.
Jan 23, 2017