A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Is there really such a thing as a pathological liar?

October 13, 1995

Dear Cecil:

Is there really such a thing as a pathological liar? If so, why does one become one?

Cecil replies:

Why not? Looking at Washington on the one hand and the OJ trial on the other, you've got to figure it gives you a lot of career options. The term is, however, somewhat imprecise. The best definition was put forth 50 years ago by L. S. Selling: "a person having a constellation of symptoms ... characterized psychopathologically by a very definite tendency to tell untruths about matters which perhaps could be easily verified and which untruths may serve no obvious purpose." This enables us to distinguish a pathological liar from, say, a lawyer, whose distortions of the truth are easily detected by anybody not serving on the jury but which do serve the obvious purpose of getting his murdering slime of a client off. More generally, we may say that John, the adulterous husband played by Peter Gallagher in the movie sex, lies and videotape, is not a pathological liar because his deceptions serve the obvious purpose of enabling him to get laid. Thus we see that habitual liars are of two kinds: on the one hand, pathological liars, who are pathetic losers, and on the other hand skilled liars, who constitute the national ruling class.

What makes pathological liars lie is not well understood although it seems pretty clear there isn't any single cause. Some people exhibit what's known as "pseudologia fantastica," in which they present wild yarns as fact. Again, skill is a factor — your journeyman fantasts can maybe swing a gig with the Weekly World News, while those who really have the gift can try the Washington Post. On the other hand, if your lying is so inept that you don't qualify even for journalism ... well, there's always broadcasting. I have a report, for example, of a "35-year-old right-handed Caucasian male" — that's enough to put you on your guard right there — who suffered from "pathological lying associated with thalamic dysfunction." Due apparently to a brain impairment he had a ten-year history of repeated lying about everything from his personal finances to where he'd put the Kleenex. Years ago he'd have wound up in the gutter but today, thank God, he can be a guest on Jerry Springer.

Not all cases of pathological lying are associated with a neurological disorder. Psychologists also blame such conditions as "superego lacunae" or "a need for the patient to produce narcissistic gratification." I love the word "lacunae," and because I love it I can say for a fact that anyone using it has no concept whatsoever. Seems clear enough to me that some people lie because they profit from it, some fib because they're sick, and some do it because they're lying sacks of sh*t.

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