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Liar, Liar Pants on Fire: Pathological Lying

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Little white lies, big lies… who among us has not told a lie?
Incessant lying. Consistent lying. “Pathological” lying.
“She’s definitely a pathological liar. Like, she lies all the time.”

I’ve heard this term thrown around a lot. It’s similar to when teenagers use curse words, without fully knowing the meaning of the terms (to look better or cooler).

So let’s first define what pseudologia phantastica, or pathological lying, really is.
There is a lot of controversy in the field of psychology as to what pathological lying really is.
“Pathological” by itself simply means abnormal, compulsive, or obsessive… but when do the occasional errant lies become pathological?

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) does not recognize pathological lying as a disorder, although it is a feature of other disorders such as borderline personality disorder, histrionic personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder.

The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and Law offers the definition of pathological lying as:
“falsification entirely disproportionate to any discernible end in view, may be extensive and very complicated. and may manifest over a period of years or even a lifetime, in the absence of definite insanity, feeble-mindedness or epilepsy”

But there is a general consensus on the characteristics that a pathological liar possesses.

Pathological liars will:

  • consistently and constantly tell lies
  • have a long history (potentially lifelong) of repeated, frequent lying
  • lie for no apparent psychological motive or external benefit (and will continue even if it hinders their functioning)
  • lie elaborate, complicated lies without consideration of magnitude, callousness, or consequences of the lying behavior.

Liar, Liar Pants on Fire: Pathological Lying

Liar, Liar Pants on Fire: Pathological Lying

The most interesting aspect to look at here is the lack of motive or benefit– while simultaneously continuing the behavior.
“Normal” lies are goal directed and provide gratification. whether it is in the form of external benefit or harm avoidance (escaping punishment); however, pathological liars appear to lie constantly even when they are damaging or incriminating their own selves.

Looking at these characteristics, it seems that the lying is impulsive… but could this behavior possibly be involuntary, and influenced by the brain?

Modell et al. (1992) found that pathological liars have decreased activity in the thalamus (right hemithalamus), and another study published in the same medical journal found increased activity in the non-pathological liar group for the same area. (The thalamus regulates cognition and behavior, as well as internal states.)

More recently, the Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences has published studies in which pathological liars’ brains were examined during the lying behavior, then compared to a non-pathological control group. Researchers once again found right hemithalamic dysfunction. the same results as the previous studies mentioned; this could hint at a possible “glitch” in the parts of the thalamus that might be related to the behavior.

Although this topic is yet to be explored. one thing is clear: whether it’s a symptom or a disease in itself, pathological lying is significantly different from the occasional white liar.
So don’t throw around your words– be educated! Know exactly what it is you just called that colleague or that classmate from school, and refrain from using such strong (disorder related) vocabulary to inaccurately describe others.


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