Have you ever met a pathological liar?

This article is co-authored with Renée Beach, my research collaborator and incoming doctoral student in clinical psychology at the University of Alabama.

most people lie

Most people lie. In any given week, about 95% of people report having lied. Although dishonesty is widespread, fortunately most people rarely lie, usually telling no lies every day. However, a small proportion of people lie a lot. In our work, we found that a small group of people in our world (just over 5%) tell half of all the lies. These prolific liars are often referred to as pathological, compulsive, or habitual liars. Perhaps you had the misfortune to meet such a person.

Scientific research on pathological liars

Although pathological liars can be an integral part of our society, there has been surprisingly little scientific research on them. There is no universally accepted definition and theory of pathological lying. However, most people conceptually understand pathological liars as people who lie with extraordinary frequency.

Recognizing the need to further characterize pathological liars, we conducted a study that focused on the frequency of interaction with pathological liars and the nature of those interactions. We predicted that most people would report having had contact with a pathological liar and that they would report that the liars told mostly self-serving lies.

We conducted a study in which we asked 251 adults about their beliefs about pathological lying. We also asked if they had ever interacted with someone they believed to be a pathological, compulsive, or habitual liar. People who admitted to having been in contact with a pathological liar were then asked about the types of lies told by the pathological liar, how they knew the person was lying, and what the consequences were for the liar and for themselves.

The results of our study

We found that 91% of respondents believed they had been in contact with a pathological liar. 100% of them indicated that the liar was telling mostly self-serving lies. They estimated that the pathological liars they knew told 10 or more lies a day. In contrast, they estimated that most people tell about two lies a day. They also reported that nearly half of the lies told by pathological liars appeared to have been told for no apparent reason.

Further, we asked what the pathological liars lied about, we found the following pattern:

Source: Christian L. Hart

Most of them said they knew the person was lying because the lies were so unbelievable.

Christian L. Hart

Source: Christian L. Hart

They suggested that the most common negative consequences for pathological liars were poor emotional and social outcomes, such as ostracism or troubled relationships with others.

Christian L. Hart

Source: Christian L. Hart

Similarly, the dishonesty of pathological liars caused negative outcomes for the people in our study. These negative outcomes were primarily emotional and social difficulties.

Christian L. Hart

Source: Christian L. Hart

Our study represents a first examination of people’s experiences with pathological liars. There are no widely accepted diagnostic criteria for pathological lying, and definitions of pathological lying vary widely. Overall, most researchers (and the participants in this study) consider pervasive lying to be a key criterion for identifying someone as a pathological liar. The results of this study present the experiences people have had with pathological liars. These experiences seem to be quite common and overwhelmingly negative. These findings can serve as a starting point for understanding the roles of pathological liars in our society.

Comments are closed.