Lies, damned lies and habitual lies

What explains the motivation of pathological and compulsive liars?

Rep. George Santos, Republican of New York. Official portrait.

First term U.S. House Republican George Santos has come under fire for fabricating much of his resume, career, education, love life and family history.

The New York Congress member demonstrates the signs of pathological lying — a condition marked by compulsive fabrications and a lack of remorse, mental health professionals say.

Dr. Ashley Bone, chief of psychiatry at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, explains there is a difference between pathological and compulsive, or habitual, lying. But both are challenging to treat in a mental health setting.

“With pathological liars, there’s actually a clear motive involved in why the person is lying,” Bone says. “They might be trying to gain attention or avoid a consequence of some kind.”

With compulsive lying, the person lies without having too much control over it. “It could be about things that are important or things that aren’t important like what you ate for lunch,” she says.

The traits found in people who are pathological liars includes not having concern about harming other people, Bone says. “They are really out for their own gain in some way.”

Pathological lying may be linked to other personality disorders such as antisocial personality or borderline personality disorder, Bone says. Borderline personality disorder severely affects a person’s ability to regulate their emotions. People with antisocial personality disorder tend to purposely make others angry or upset and manipulate or treat others harshly or with cruel indifference.

“Such people often lie to gain attention or gain relationships or status because they have a hard time forming relationships,” Bone said. “They are individuals who don’t really like to follow the rules and they don’t care about it either.”

Compulsive liars “often have a conscience about it and don’t quite understand why they are doing it. It can frequently bother them, but they can’t seem to stop doing it,” Bone says.

For both types of liars, the behavior typically starts in childhood or teen years. It may be related to low self- esteem, abuse or trauma, “so it’s just made it easier to form stories or make sense of what’s gone on in their life from a young age,” Bone says. “Then it just snowballs as time goes on.”

The lies may become elaborate and detailed, but they often are easy to verify, thus explaining the unraveling of Santos’ lies that could possibly end his career in Congress.

Pathological or compulsive lying “can be extremely serious,” Bone says. “It can impair someone’s ability to have a longstanding relationship or sustain employment. It can backfire on someone in the long run. Problems in their life related to the lying often lead them to seek help.”

In pathological or compulsive lying, some people have been lying for such a long time that they start to believe their own lies and it can become hard to distinguish truth from lies. “Often when people start to tell lies, they tell lies to cover up those lies and it becomes hard to keep everything straight.”

No medication exists for treatment because it’s usually a learned behavior, Bone says. “But there are certain therapies that can be beneficial.” A therapist can help habitual liars understand their condition and the way it affects other people, she adds. “It could take months or years to help them navigate their habitual reaction to lie.”

The most difficult liar to treat is a person that doesn’t want to seek help and is somehow forced into getting help from a therapist. They may continue to lie to the therapist. “Those are the individuals that really have the most difficulty making improvements and getting better.”


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