The world's con artists and hustlers and philanderers have to lie -- it's how they get by. But the real masters of lying don't need a clear reason. They spin war stories for neighbors, travel adventures for co-workers, romantic fictions for friends.
That's why many psychiatrists consider chronic lying as almost always a symptom of a deeper emotional problem, such as delusional thinking, psychopathy or narcissism.
Yet the most provocative new research suggests that people lie chronically for a wide variety of reasons, some serious, others relatively benign. In a recent article reviewing 100 years of literature on the subject, as well as several cases in the news, doctors at Yale University find that some chronic liars are capable, successful, even disciplined people who embellish their life stories needlessly. They don't suffer from an established mental illness, as many habitual fabricators do. They're just, well, liars.
"Many of us have known these kinds of people; it's like they wake up in the morning and have to tell the most preposterous stories for no apparent reason," said Dr. Charles Dike, a coauthor of the article with Yale psychiatrists Dr. Ezra Griffith and Madelon Baranoski. Their findings were presented at a recent conference of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, a forensic psychiatry group.
Viewed as otherwise normal men and women who have a kind of compulsion, these chronic liars become more sympathetic figures, neither as manipulative nor malicious as they seem, and perhaps more predictable. "In these cases where there is no underlying mental problem," Dike said, "we then can ask: What about the individual's life is causing this abnormal pattern of deception?"
Psychologists have long known that some deception is a normal, healthy part of human behavior, often starting in children about the age of 5 or 6. In adulthood, most people lie routinely, if usually harmlessly, to get through the day. In one ongoing experiment, Robert Feldman, a psychologist at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, has had people carry hidden video cameras and record their conversations over a couple of days. Watching the tapes later, the men and women tally their own deceptions. The average fib rate: three for every 10 minutes of conversation. "One woman heard herself on the telephone, sympathizing with her boyfriend, who was sick," Feldman said. "At the time of the conversation, she told us, all she was thinking was, 'What a big baby.' "
The variety of these social "white lies" reflects their many familiar purposes: to avoid hurting others' feelings; to cover our own embarrassments; to reassure the needlessly anxious; to spare unnecessary headaches. But the lying can become less appropriate when used as an all-purpose coping strategy.
Dr. Charles Ford, a psychiatrist at the University of Alabama in Birmingham, said that in his own practice he sees college students from affluent backgrounds who are struggling in school. Some begin lying to cover up failure. "These are young men and women who maybe got into school as a legacy, not on ability, or who have a learning disability," he said. "The expectations are very high, and they can't cut it." At exam time, the stories fly: One woman had an imaginary boyfriend, an international news correspondent, who would fly in to visit from overseas; another had a series of emergency funerals to attend. "The problem is, you can only have so many dead grandmothers," Ford said.
People struggling through highly demanding jobs or family responsibilities may engage in the same kind of fabrication to buy themselves breathing room, psychologists report. The coping strategy is protective, and the lies usually have some basis in truth. But when the deception builds on itself, mental-health experts say, it is cause for concern, as evidence of a mental disorder, or at least a profound sense of inadequacy that could respond to therapy.
Certainly a behavior common to nearly all chronic liars is that they change their stories when caught. "One person who I went to college with would make up fantastic stories, saying he was going off to Europe, for example," said Dike. "Then you would see him later that evening. He'd say, 'Oh, the trip was canceled at the last minute.' There was always an explanation."
On psychological tests, many chronic liars show evidence of a neurological imbalance: They have highly developed verbal skills combined with slight impairment in the frontal lobes of the brain, which critically examine what we're saying. "This is the self-editor," said Ford, "the voice inside that listens as we talk sometimes says, 'This is nonsense.' And then we stop and say, 'OK, OK, let me back up and start again.' " Yet sometimes there's no reason to believe any neurological imbalance, or other serious disorder, is involved. Psychiatrists point to several cases in the news. Joseph Ellis, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., regaled students and colleagues with vivid war stories before an article in the Boston Globe revealed that he had never been in combat. In 2001, a state judicial commission removed from the bench a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge, Patrick Couwenberg, after concluding that he lied about being a CIA operative, among other things. In the late 1980s, an Arizona newspaper publisher, Darrow Tully, resigned after admitting he'd invented a military past. At the time their stories were challenged, all three were widely respected professionals who could tell a good tale.
"We know from the literature that there are some highly functional, very creative people whose lives were almost entirely based on spectacular stories they spewed over the years," Dike said. "Unless someone goes back and looks at the person's life history with a magnifying glass, this can go on and on."
One psychiatrist who studied pathological liars in the early 1900s described what he called a "double consciousness," in which a person runs two narratives in his or her head, a desired life and an actual one, with the former often overwhelming the latter. The phenomenon seems to show up as often in men as in women. Several case studies even suggest that some chronic liars are thrilled by their own stories, in much the same way a fiction writer delights in newly invented plot twists, Dike said.
Anyone who has told a tall tale understands one common motive: a desire to stand out, to be interesting, even if only for a few moments. One of the ironies of fame, psychologists say, is that in some people it only deepens that desire. The respect and adoration of others seem to demand a larger-than-life personality.
"Everyone else has these expectations of you, and maybe you think you don't quite live up to them," said Ford. "It's the impostor feeling, the thought that maybe you aren't worthy to be thought so wonderful." Making up stories may help counter that sensation, he said.
Certainly men who have not knowingly risked death or demonstrated courage in a life-threatening situation can wonder, throughout their lives: Do I have what it takes? An invented war story serves well to address and perhaps ease this doubt. "Telling a story of being a big military hero may very well serve to do that: If somebody else believes it, you almost believe it, and there's some gratification, and almost a rush you might feel," said Ford. The story serves both to impress others and to shore up a person's private self-image. The same goes for a woman who embroiders romances, business or sports success, even details an exaggerated "tough" childhood.
Told out loud, the stories can make her feel more like who she wants to be.
Ruben Gur, a psychologist and director of the Brain Behavior laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania, attended a dinner with the family of a student whom he knew to be a habitual liar.
"There was deception surrounding even the simplest things," he recalls. At one point, the student's mother asked if anyone wanted another portion of meat. "Then she said, 'Well, if not, I'll have to throw it away,' " he said. "It was clear that no one was allowed to take an extra portion because they were actually hungry. It was only in the context of preventing the waste that you could have it." A childhood built on such small intrigues, Gur said, can provide the foundation for deceptive habits later in life.
Perhaps that's why no one has yet claimed a "cure" for chronic lying. As extreme as it is, the habit appears to grow from universal needs for self-protection, acceptance and self-affirmation.
We all daydream. We all, to varying degrees, buffer ourselves against painful truths by massaging the past. We all carry around the small deceits of our early family life. The pathological liar's biggest violation may be simply in taking those private deceptions public.