Is compulsive lying linked with any recognised mental disorders?
July 8, 2007 6:27 PM   Subscribe

Is compulsive lying linked with any recognised mental disorders?

Over the years, I've known at least half a dozen people who seemed to be 'compulsive liars'. The flavour of lying that I am talking about is not exactly the kind of compulsive lying that I've been finding described on the internet, where people lie constantly about minor things like what they had for lunch. I'm talking about big-ticket & usually self-aggrandising personal histories.

Some examples, culled from various people:

I used to own a card trading shop in Tokyo.

I used to work in a motorcycle repair shop at age 14 & was so good that I was recruited into a pro racing team.

I was brought up in a lesbian squatter commune in East LA.

I was picked for the Australian rock climbing team. It was supposed to be for a pro competition, but they wanted me so much they overlooked by amateur status.

I travelled around the country for years as part of a youth circus.

I grew up in a mission in West Africa.

I used to run international kite-flying competitions.

...and so on. After some time listening to these colourful histories, it eventually becomes clear that there are significant conflicts between the stories, such that the person in question could not possibly have done all those things in their time so far on earth. In some cases, there are a number of totally different stories that account for childhood & teenage years. There are also other apparent contradictions, such that if they had the resources, discipline or skills required to pull off the described feats, then they probably wouldn't be in the somewhat lowly position that they find themselves today.

My working theory is that these things are said in order to cover up a history of abuse, and that the people involved might even have swayed into pathological lying, in which they actually believe their own stories to be true. However, I've been unable so far to find much written about this kind of link (there's a lot of noise out there).

It seems that compulsive/pathological lying is not itself in the DSM-IV, but does anybody know if it is linked with any recognised disorders, or if the child abuse angle is recognised anywhere in the psychiatric / psychological literature?
posted by UbuRoivas to Human Relations (25 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Possibilties in which lying is specifically indicated:

Narcissistic Personality Disorder
Antisocial Personality Disorder
or Munchausen Syndrome

Your working theory seems closes to Borderline Personality Disorder; BPD sufferers can often have a history of abuse, and have huge problems with self-image and relating to others.
posted by goingonit at 6:45 PM on July 8, 2007

Perhaps you could put these stories into context for us. Were they told in a setting where people were drinking and laughing? Was there a boastful atmosphere, even "I can top that one!"? Or were they told as part of a more serious discussion? And what about the people... ages? Occupations? Educational attainments? Economic statuses?
posted by exphysicist345 at 7:04 PM on July 8, 2007

It seems very odd that you know SO many people who are compulsive liars - are these isolated incidences with each person or what?
posted by tristeza at 7:04 PM on July 8, 2007

My working theory is that these things are said in order to cover up a history of abuse

Could be. Or maybe they're not in denial. Maybe their abusive past just isn't any of your business, so whenever they get asked what their teenage years were like, they tell you some bull about a motorcycle race.

But in the case of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, it's more likely that they are overcompensating for their perceived inferiority by making up tall tales.

Definitely not Munchausen in these cases, though, unless they end with things like, "...and that's how I broke my arm."

Of course, you can never rule out the possibility that they are lying simply because they get a kick out of it, or because they're only going to know you for a weekend so what's the difference, or whatever.

(Or perhaps it's you who's got the personality disorder: Is there any chance that they're telling the truth, and you're just being overly suspicious?)
posted by Reggie Digest at 7:25 PM on July 8, 2007

There's an article by Owen Edwards titled "Thrice-Told Tales" that unfortunately is in the pay-to-see archive of the New York Times, but it's been anthologized some. Edwards maintains that the kind of lying you're talking about, which he terms "counterfeit self-improvement" is largely practiced by men and that it isn't purposeful or pathological, just a common, natural outgrowth of results not matching up to expectations.

He thinks most of these lies are actually exaggerations and often end up being the version the teller genuinely believes. For instance, Edwards once took a writing class on a college campus where William Faulkner taught (I'm not sure if he was teaching there that semester.) As he told the tale over the years, somehow it evolved into him saying that he took a class taught by Faulkner.

I'm not sure I buy Edwards' analysis, but his discussion is an interesting read if you ever come across it.
posted by FelliniBlank at 7:31 PM on July 8, 2007

Response by poster: To give a little more context: these kinds of claims were most definitely not boastful or exaggerated drinking stories. They are examples of the actual "this is the story of my life" tales that they told. Looking back over the list, all those claims came from only four people.

I think the first I knew was an English Lit PhD with a pretty serious drinking problem. He was the one who was supposedly raised in the lesbian squat. He and his friends used to find discarded crack pipes & smoke the remains, he said. At age 8. Before crack had been invented. He had at least a few other colourful upbringing stories. A farm on the Isle of Skye or something was another. I had to interrupt him occasionally: "Um, what age was this again? Because I thought you said you were in LA at that point...?" His background was very unclear, but I heard rumours of an abusive father in Sydney.

Occupations, education, economic statuses? Other than the PhD, no great status. Level of education is hard to know. The West Africa - circus - rockclimber claimed to have a Bachelor of Communications, somehow specialising in Egyptology (?!?!!), which is a dubious claim, at best, considering Communications is a difficult degree to get into, which doesn't reconcile well with the circus story, or the "I ran away from home at 13 & lived in anarchist squats all over England" story.

"SO many people"? Well, since graduating from high school, I've always lived in reasonably bohemian, inner-city Sydney suburbs, so it's often a colourful crowd.
posted by UbuRoivas at 7:36 PM on July 8, 2007

He and his friends used to find discarded crack pipes & smoke the remains, he said.

Hm. Plea for sympathy? Maybe it is Munchausen after all. (Or maybe the inconsistencies in his story are due to all the childhood crack-smoking?)
posted by Reggie Digest at 7:56 PM on July 8, 2007

People generally lie when they pass a certain threshold of various factors such as reward vs. value of seeing yourself as a non-lier.

There are a lot of reasons of many sorts for people to be different from you in the how, when and why of their lying. Theses various dynamics can often be highly variable across situations. If the reason is a stable trait it saves us some brain work the next time the person says something: he's just a lier and lying is what he does (see: 'The Boy Who Cried Wolf'). Really, the reasons for anyones statements are probably more complex than mental illness, etc. (though that is also possible).
posted by Matt Oneiros at 8:09 PM on July 8, 2007

Response by poster: (Or perhaps it's you who's got the personality disorder: Is there any chance that they're telling the truth, and you're just being overly suspicious?)

Yes, that's also a possibility. This is really just a bit of a joining-the-dots exercise. The piece of info that I left out is that most of these people have a bit of a a reputation of being low-level grifters.

Nothing particularly serious, but it seems almost everybody has a story about them involving smallish loans not being repaid, rent or bill money or household items going astray, that kind of thing.

It just seemed like a curious coincidence that the very same people who tell these kinds of half-plausible but distinctly out of the ordinary tales also tend have this kind of petty scamming / thieving aspect to them, especially when the tales don't seem to serve any purpose other than to convince the listener that they've had an interesting life, and the grifting is of such a relatively harmless & minor nature.

This just made me wonder if there was some kind of psychiatric disorder underpinning it all, and it could be that NPD or BPD might be candidates - not that I'm trying to make any serious kind of diagnosis, though. Just a thought, really.
posted by UbuRoivas at 8:49 PM on July 8, 2007

I used to work with a guy who came up with the most outlandish, conflicting stories all the time, stuff like, 'I was chased out of the US by the FBI after I'd spent two years working there as a storm-chaser, then the girl I was going to marry in the Caribbean ditched me at the altar'.

He was a complete fantasist though, and frequently got caught in multiple, overlapping lies. He got a lot of negative attention, but I think he just wanted any sort of attention he could get, and realised (perhaps in with more credulous people in another setting, this was a platoon of piss-taking soldiers) that these wacky stories got him that attention.

He was also a classic 'ten-shitter', i.e. You've done one shit? That's nothing, I've done ten! He'd do that about literally anything. Anything, to the point he'd tie himself in knots trying to reconcile all the crazy shit he'd told us, and eventually just gave up any pretense that he wasn't making it up, while still insisting it was true.
posted by Happy Dave at 10:12 PM on July 8, 2007

I've heard that there hasn't been much research on compulsive liars because they hardly ever volunteer for psychiatric care, and they don't pose enough of a threat to themselves or others to be committed.

I've known two people (high school classmate, roommate) who did the same kind of lying UbuRoivas describes, so it's certainly possible that he's met four.

Any analysis I have of these two would be armchair psychology at best, and colored by my personal feelings. That said, the most obvious motivation was to compensate for low self-esteem in social situations. There could be thousands of causes of low self-esteem, including childhood abuse, but I had no knowledge of any of that with these two. They wasn't an issue of being dishonest with money or property with either of them, as far as I know.

Matt Oneiros says above that the dynamics are highly variable, and that's true in my experience. The classmate was a pretty nice guy ordinarily, only he'd often claim to be a highly-ranked competitive chess player or have a black belt in something or other. If you let it go, it wouldn't come up again and that was that.

My roommate, on the other hand, had lies about pretty much every facet of her life, from her past to her current work, artistic and musical successes, romantic relationships, and so on. She build up a lot of status with this and got pretty hostile when you asked too many questions, leaving the rest of us to walk around on eggshells. She strung along her poor boyfriend with threats to go back to New York to sleep with the rock star she hadn't "officially" broken up with yet. Googling her name just now still brings up her membership in the influential band she claimed to be in as a teenager. Yeesh.

The said thing is with both of these people were had plenty of good stuff going for them in reality. The classmate was smart, charming and funny. The roommate was an active volunteer and had enough musical talent to teach herself an instrument and play in some notable local bands. Neither of them had to lie about anything to be impressive or interesting.
posted by hydrophonic at 10:30 PM on July 8, 2007

I work with a guy who's a compulsive liar. He's a great guy, really interesting, in spite of the lies.

I've found that the lies tend to be things that exaggerate his importance. Even though he works two jobs, he tells us that he's actually a multi-millionaire, and that he just works because he loves the job. (Of course, ask him 10 minutes later and he'll admit that he hates both of this jobs.) He's also held top-secret clearances, been in charge of enormous organizations, and suffered completely improbable injuries. (Such as having several of his fingers severed off at work, at a job I'm pretty certain he never held; he duct-taped them back on and it wasn't until he went home that evening that his wife insisted he get medical treatment.)

Sometimes, though, I'll realize that he's lying about even the most mundane details about his life, such as when he talked about his 'new computer,' which apparently ran Vista long before it was available and has a 956 kHz processor. He's also contradicted himself several times about how many dogs he has.

I've always chalked it up to an inferiority complex, where he feels that his 'real' life isn't interesting enough, so he makes stuff up to get attention and gain acceptance.

As hydrophonic put it, I'm nothing but an "armchair psycholog[ist]," though.
posted by fogster at 11:35 PM on July 8, 2007

Response by poster: HaHa - your stories reminded me of yet another guy & his improbable tales. This one had nothing of the petty thieving aspect, though. He was more entertaining, and had a bit of a nervous habit of kinda giggling as he would tell you about, eg the time I bumped into Sonic Youth in a bar, which led to them all becoming best buddies & travelling across the country together...
posted by UbuRoivas at 12:39 AM on July 9, 2007

I knew someone who did this in high school, and from what I (armchair psychologist) could gather, it seemed to be a combination of self esteem issues and an attempt to gain acceptance. She always wanted to be envied for the outrageous and interesting life she "led", instead of pleasantly liked but perhaps pushed aside for the pretty good, but mudane life she actually led.

When it became obvious to us, her classmates, she defended her stories with veracity, with a combination of what I percieved as wanting them to be true herself, and a feeling that even bad attention is attention nonetheless.
posted by The Esteemed Doctor Bunsen Honeydew at 1:00 AM on July 9, 2007

Here's a great This American Life show about compulsive liars.
posted by Happy Dave at 1:08 AM on July 9, 2007

During a low point several yeas ago I briefly dated someone exactly like this. He was a compulsive liar and self-aggrandising, with a career of low-rent scamming and stealing. An ex-gf of his told me he'd been diagnosed with narcissistic and sociopathic personality disorders and when I read about them it fit to a T. The whole deal lasted less than two months, but at the outset he was incredibly charming and intelligent and these type of people often are. Their brain works a completely different way to others - I'm not even sure he knew he was lying or understood what that even meant in terms of morality or consequences for anyone other than himself.
posted by poissonrouge at 1:44 AM on July 9, 2007

Response by poster: Yes, I forgot the charming & intelligent bit. That's another unusual angle to these people. They tend to be very likeable, often insinuating themselves as everybody's charismatic instant best friend, and then unexplicably make off with very low-rent thefts - not scamming for the thousands that they probably could eventually get if they tried, but simple opportunistic grabs at the $20 in the household grocery kitty, or borrowing $50 off every single person they meet.
posted by UbuRoivas at 2:22 AM on July 9, 2007

if you're interested in reading some research on deception, my old prof. Julian Keenan says that everyone lies! his research is actually interesting (i even let him zap me a few times). not sure if it will answer this question, i still thought it was worth mentioning.

here's a post in the "deception blog" mentioning his research again.
posted by pictureyellow at 7:06 AM on July 9, 2007

I'm not trying to be difficult or anything, but I think you've asked the wrong question. I think the question you want to be asking is why do I attract so many of these people to myself?

I can guarantee that no matter how messed up they are and how many diagnoses you and the MetaFilter Hive Mind can heap on them, it won't matter if you can't find a new circle, of truthful people this time.
posted by RobotHeart at 9:30 AM on July 9, 2007

Anecdotal evidence is all: we're pretty sure one of my problematic volunteers has actually had brain trauma. His incessant lying (about very random things, like going to a Tim Horton's in Germany, or how many languages he speaks) is the reason he's one of my problematic volunteers. I don't know if he was like this before he got hit in the head, but I'd assume not.
posted by cobaltnine at 9:33 AM on July 9, 2007

A family member to whom I'm very close tells lies all the time. He doesn't really lie about mundane things, or fabricate concerning life-shaping events or his upbringing, but he tells stories of adventure and intrigue that are patently untrue, not just exaggerations. He gets really upset when accused of making up these stories, but other than that, it doesn't really seem to affect his life too much. Those who know him well just sort of chalk it up as a character trait. I've come to the conclusion that he actually convinces himself that most of these stories truly happened to him, and that his enchantment with his own bravado is stronger than his grasp on reality. I often wonder if this is related to early (like 13 years old) experimentation with psychedelics.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 10:29 AM on July 9, 2007

Response by poster: I think the question you want to be asking is why do I attract so many of these people to myself?

Fair suggestion, but that's probably not really the point. I'm talking of around half a dozen people out of probably thousands I've known. It's just that they suddenly stood out, in that join-the-dots way I described. Mostly, they have been bit players in my life, and generally introduced into circles by dating people I know. One was a random flatmate in a share house (a roly-poly 50yo gay guy, who filled everybody's ersatz "friendly uncle" sorta role). One I dated for about a week, who was a friend of friends.

I could probably already answer the question you suggest: it's not me so much acting as a magnet, but just part & parcel of inner-city life, I think. You're always gonna have an element of psychos, junkies, child abuse survivors etc who gravitate towards bohemian-ish areas, because there's a greater tolerance of freaks & a higher rate of social churn than in more traditional suburbs or towns, making it easier for people to fit in, or be relatively invisible.
posted by UbuRoivas at 2:43 PM on July 9, 2007

"and that he just works because he loves the job. (Of course, ask him 10 minutes later and he'll admit that he hates both of this jobs.)"

The fellow in question in this anecdote may not consider this lying, this is a decent example (except for his more boisterous claims) to illustrate a sort of grey area in truth-telling where people may disagree on what's a lie.
posted by Matt Oneiros at 7:33 PM on July 10, 2007

most of these people have a bit of a a reputation of being low-level grifters.

Well, there you go. The grifter, or better yet the con-artist, is very good at lying in a very convincing way. (If they couldn't, they wouldn't last in the racket.) They also enjoy it, because it's rewarding, and they can get away with it. Of course, they don't go to a therapist for help.

Does anyone have any info on the psychological makeup of grifters?
posted by exphysicist345 at 7:42 PM on July 11, 2007

Response by poster: The grifter, or better yet the con-artist, is very good at lying in a very convincing way.

Well, that's the thing I find strange. Lying in a convincing way would involve something a bit more innocuous: "I went to a standard highschool in the suburbs", and not something potentially verifiable, like "I played junior hockey for the state" (another example from the people above). It's almost as if they're getting a thrill from walking a tightrope, or throwing out a challenge: "go on, disbelieve me if you dare!".

It could be that because extravagent lies are relatively easy to probe ("oh, so you played hockey for the state? how interesting! i love the game! what were your most successful set moves, and how did you train for them?" / "Kyoto, nice! I've been there. Which was your favourite temple? You must have seen some great festivals!") so that if you don't challenge them, that sets you up as an unquestioning, trusting kind of person...?
posted by UbuRoivas at 8:18 PM on July 11, 2007

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