Pathological Liars: Causes, Symptoms, How to Get Help

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Pathological liars are people who feel compelled to lie, often for no logical reason. In fact, the lies can be so outrageous that the untruth seems widely apparent to others, yet the liar will insist it’s true and tell additional lies to back up the first untruth.

According to Psychiatric Times, pathological lying is “characterized by a long history (maybe lifelong) of frequent and repeated lying for which no apparent motive or external benefit can be discovered.” A pathological liar doesn’t typically lie to get out of trouble or avoid consequences; they lie as a matter of habit and lifestyle. Some lies may be maintained for years.

Researchers still have a lot to learn about pathological liars. No one knows how prevalent this pattern of behavior is within the general population. One study identified approximately 1% of 1,000 repeat juvenile offenders as pathological liars. Within that population, more females than males were recognized as excessive liars.

Causes of Pathological Lying

Interestingly, researchers noted a history of central nervous system abnormality in about 40% of the repeat juvenile offenders who were pathological liars. Some had epilepsy, a seizure disorder; others had a history of head trauma, brain injury, or infection. These findings suggest that pathological lying may have a biologic cause.

Other small studies support this hypothesis. A 2005 study examined brain scans of pathological liars and compared them to people without a documented or reported history of excessive lying. The study found that habitual liars have more white matter than gray matter in the part of the brain that controls impulses and emotional reactions. The white matter has been described as the “wiring” of the brain; it’s the connections between discrete brain cells. Scientists suspect that this increased connectivity may facilitate lying, as quick connections are needed to come up with (and maintain) untruths.

Other researchers have noted that pathological lying is more common in individuals who experienced childhood trauma. Those who suffered abuse or grew up in dysfunctional families may be more likely to lie than others.

Help for Pathological Liars

Unfortunately, little research has been done to determine effective treatment for pathological lying. Talk therapy, including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) may help, but its effectiveness will depend largely on the individual’s ability to be honest with the therapist, and that’s something that doesn’t come easy for pathological liars. If lying has become a problem in a relationship, couples or family counseling may be helpful, as the therapist can mediate conversation and support those harmed by the lying behavior.

Research has not adequately studied the safety or effectiveness of medication as a treatment for pathological lying.

If lying is creating problems in your life, it’s best to schedule an appointment with a mental health provider (usually, a therapist or psychologist) who can conduct an assessment and evaluation. Together, you can decide on next steps.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 May 17
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
  1. Pathological Lying: Symptom or Disease? Psychiatric Times. https://www.psychiatrictimes.com/view/pathological-lying-symptom-or-disease
  2. What is Pathological Lying? Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-nature-deception/202009/what-is-pathological-lying
  3. Dike C, Baranoski M, Griffith E. Pathological Lying Revisited. J Am Acad Psychiatry Law. 2005;33(3), 342-349. Retrieved from http://jaapl.org/content/33/3/342.long
  4. Curtis D, Hart C. Pathological Lying: Theoretical and Empirical Support for a Diagnostic Entity. Psychiatric Res Clin Practice. 2020;2(2), 62-69. doi: 10.1176/appi.prcp.20190046. Retrieved from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1176/appi.prcp.20190046
  5. University of Southern California. (2005, October 2). First Evidence Of Brain Abnormalities Found In Pathological Liars. ScienceDaily. Retrieved May 9, 2021 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2005/10/051002115557.htm