Spare fib: Should pathological lying be considered a mental disorder?

In a previous blog on weird addictions, compulsions and obsessions, I briefly looked at pathological lying. Writings relating to pathological lying first appeared in the psychiatric literature over 100 years ago and have been given names such as ‘pseudologia fantastica’ and ‘mythomania’ and often used interchangeably. There is some consensus that Dr. Anton Delbruck, a German physician was the first person to describe the concept of pathological lying in 1891 after publishing an account of five of his patients. Despite the long history of research, pathological lying is not included in either the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-IV) or the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases (ICD-10). The only mention of pathological lying in the DSM-IV is in association with Factitious Disorder (discussed below), However, many psychologists and psychiatrists claim that it is a distinct psychiatric disorder as highlighted in the many papers that have been published on the topic over the last two decades.

At a very simplistic level, pathological lying refers to a person that incessantly tells lies. However, Dr Charles Dike and his colleagues at Yale University define it 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”. However, there are other psychiatric conditions (such as people with Manipulative Personality) that may also engage in pathological lying as part of a wider set of behaviours and symptoms. In fact, there is a lot of debate as to whether the behaviour is really a discrete and unique entity or whether it typically manifests itself as an adjunct to other recognized psychological and/or psychiatric conditions. Dr Dike and colleagues note that:

“Pathological liars can believe their lies to the extent that, at least to others, the belief may appear to be delusional; they generally have sound judgment in other matters; it is questionable whether pathological lying is always a conscious act and whether pathological liars always have control over their lies; an external reason for lying (such as financial gain) often appears absent and the internal or psychological purpose for lying is often unclear; the lies in pathological lying are often unplanned and rather impulsive; the pathological liar may become a prisoner of his or her lies; the desired personality of the pathological liar may overwhelm the actual one; pathological lying may sometimes be associated with criminal behavior; the pathological liar may acknowledge, at least in part, the falseness of the tales when energetically challenged; and, in pathological lying, telling lies may often seem to be an end in itself. However, it is evident that no single descriptive tableau of a pathological liar settles all the nosological and etiological questions raised by the phenomenon of pathological lying” (p.344)

Dike and colleagues then went on to list a wide range of psychiatric conditions that have been associated pathological lying in an attempt to contextualize how the lying behaviour is manifested within these known conditions. The list of psychological and psychiatric conditions included: (i) Malingering, (ii) Confabulation, (iii) Ganser’s Syndrome, (iv) Factitious Disorder, (v) Borderline Personality Disorder, (vi) Antisocial Personality Disorder, (vii) Histrionic Personality Disorders. Arguably it is these last three disorders with which pathological lying is most associated with. The following briefly describes the symptoms and context of each of these conditions as outlined by Dr Dike and his colleagues:

  • Malingering: This is deliberate lying where the person grossly exaggerates or totally lies about physical and/or psychological symptoms. Unlike ‘archetypal’ pathological liars, malingerers are typically motivated to tell lies for a specific purpose such as to obtain financial compensation, to avoid working, to avoid military service, to avoid criminal prosecution, etc.
  • Confabulation: This is where people tell lies incessantly as a way of covering up memory lapses caused by specific memory loss conditions (e.g., organically derived amnesia). In ‘archetypal’ pathological liars, the condition is psychological (rather than organic) in origin.
  • Ganser’s Syndrome (GS): GS is a rare dissociative disorder (only 101 recorded cases ever) characterized by affected people giving nonsensical answers to questions (and goes under many other names including ‘nonsense syndrome’ and ‘balderdash syndrome’). Unlike the elaborate and sometimes fantastical stories told by ‘archetypal’ pathological liars, the lies told by those with GS are very simplistic and approximate.
  • Factitious Disorder (FD): FD is the deliberate use of lies and/or exaggerations concerning psychological and/or physical symptoms solely for the purpose of assuming the role of a sick person (formerly known as Munchausen’s Syndrome). In contrast, the ‘archetypal’ pathological liar doesn’t want to appear sick to other people.
  • Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD): BPD is the condition where people have long-term patterns of unstable and/or turbulent emotions. Pathological lying and being deceitful are core characteristics of BPD and lies are typically told for personal profit or pleasure. Although. BPD patients typically have contradictory views about themselves and lack a consistent self-identity. A lack of impulse control may facilitate the distortions and lies told.
  • Antisocial Personality Disorder (APD): APD is the condition in which the sufferer has a long-term pattern of manipulating, exploiting, or violating the rights of others (and is often criminal). Those with APD often lie repeatedly and consistently for personal satisfaction alone. Although those with APD are often pathological liars, ‘archetypal’ pathological liars rarely have disordered antisocial personalities.
  • Histrionic Personality Disorder (HPD): Those with HPD act in a highly emotional and dramatic way to draw attention to themselves. They often lie as a way to enhance and/or facilitate their dramatic and attention-seeking behaviour. In contrast, ‘archetypal’ pathological liars do not constantly seek attention.

Based on the list above, it is evident that the symptom of pathological lying can occur in some mental disorders (e.g., FD, BPD) and could be called secondary pathological lying. However, it is much less clear whether it can occur independently of a known psychiatric disorder and be seen as primary pathological lying. Unlike other the other forms of lying outlined above, Dr Dike says pathological lying appears to be unplanned and impulsive. Despite all the speculation, there is still relatively little known although it’s thought to affect men and women equally with an onset in late adolescence. There are no reliable prevalence figures although one study estimated that one in a 1000 repeat juvenile offenders suffered from it.

On a biological and neurological level, a paper published in the Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences reported the case of a pathological liar who was given a brain scan. Results showed that his condition was associated with right hemithalamic dysfunction. This supported the hypothesized roles of the thalamus and associated brain regions in the modulation of behavior and cognition.

A study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry reported differences in brain structure between pathological liars and control groups. Pathological liars showed a relatively widespread increase in white matter (approximately one-quarter to one-third more than controls) and the authors suggested that this increase may predispose some individuals to pathological lying.

Those working in the mental health system need to pay attention to pathological lying so that they can inform legal practitioners about whether pathological liars should be held responsible for their behaviour. Whether pathological liars are aware of the lies they tell has major implications for forensic psychiatry practice. Dr Dike says it could help determine how a court deals with pathological liars who provide false testimony while under oath.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Delbruck, A (1891). Die pathologische Luge und die psychisch abnormen Schwindler: Eine Untersuchung uber den allmahlichen Uebergang eines normalen psychologischen Vorgangs in ein pathologisches Symptom, fur Aerzte und Juristen. Stuttgart, 1891, p 131.

Dike, C.C., Baranoski, M. & Griffith, E.E.H. (2005). Pathological lying Revisited. Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and Law 33, 342-349.

Healy W, Healy MT: Pathological Lying, Accusation, and Swindling. Boston: Little, Brown, 1926

King, B.H. & Ford, C.V. (1988). Pseudologia fantastica. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 77, 1-6.

Miller, P., Bramble, D., & Buxton, N. (1997). Case study: Ganser syndrome in children and adolescents. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 36, 112-115.

Modell, J.G., Mountz, J.M. & Ford, C.V. (1992). Pathological lying associated with thalamic dysfunction demonstrated by [99mTc]HMPAO SPECT. Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, 4, 442-446.

Yang, Y., Raine, A. Narr, K.L., Lencz, T., LaCasse, L., Colletti, P. & Toga, A.W. (2007). Localisation of increased prefrontal white matter in pathological liars. British Journal of Psychiatry, 190, 174-175.

About drmarkgriffiths

Professor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Professor of Behavioural Addiction at the Nottingham Trent University, and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit. He is internationally known for his work into gambling and gaming addictions and has won many awards including the American 1994 John Rosecrance Research Prize for “outstanding scholarly contributions to the field of gambling research”, the 1998 European CELEJ Prize for best paper on gambling, the 2003 Canadian International Excellence Award for “outstanding contributions to the prevention of problem gambling and the practice of responsible gambling” and a North American 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award For Contributions To The Field Of Youth Gambling “in recognition of his dedication, leadership, and pioneering contributions to the field of youth gambling”. His most recent award is the 2013 Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 600 research papers, four books, over 130 book chapters, and over 1000 other articles. He has served on numerous national and international committees (e.g. BPS Council, BPS Social Psychology Section, Society for the Study of Gambling, Gamblers Anonymous General Services Board, National Council on Gambling etc.) and is a former National Chair of Gamcare. He also does a lot of freelance journalism and has appeared on over 2000 radio and television programmes since 1988. In 2004 he was awarded the Joseph Lister Prize for Social Sciences by the British Association for the Advancement of Science for being one of the UK’s “outstanding scientific communicators”. His awards also include the 2006 Excellence in the Teaching of Psychology Award by the British Psychological Society and the British Psychological Society Fellowship Award for “exceptional contributions to psychology”.

Posted on March 20, 2012, in Compulsion, Obsession, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Popular Culture, Psychiatry, Psychology and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. I see you have a lot of credentials and are well versed in gambling addiction but your below quote on BPD isn’t valid:

    “Pathological lying and being deceitful are core characteristics of BPD and lies are typically told for personal profit or pleasure.”

    Core characteristic of BPD are fear of abandonment and shame.

    • I can assure you that my blogs are based on empirical evidence and the relationship between BPD and pathological lying comes from the 2005 paper in the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and Law by Charles Dike and colleagues (as was made clear in my blog). On p.345, Dike and colleagues wrote this:

      “Pathological lying is not uncommon in patients with Borderline Personality Disorder. Indeed, the core characteristics of the latter disorder foster falsifications. These patients often lack a consistent self-identity and hold contradictory views of themselves that alternate frequently. They are prone to loose thinking in unstructured situations and may suffer transient loss of reality testing. Such distortions of reality complicated by a lack of impulse control and the defense mechanisms of primitive denial, idealization, and devaluation are fertile grounds for pathological lying”

      They also based these claims on another paper (Snyder, S. [1986] Pseudologia fantastica in the borderline patient. American Journal
      of Psychiatry 143, 1287–9). Feel free to check it out

      Rather than shoot the messenger I suggest you take it up with the authors who wrote this.


  2. Thank you, this is a subject that I’m interested in. I have a question if that’s ok. If a person regularly speculates about things and then states those things as facts, with such conviction that one assumes the person genuinely believes what they are saying and has disregarded the fact that it was just based on their own speculation, would you say that comes under the category of pathological lying? I’ve worded that a bit clumsily, but hopefully it makes some sense! It didn’t seem to quite fit in to any of the categories you listed.

  3. Histrionic personality disorder!

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