Pathological Liar Signs (Definition + Quiz)

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Practical Psychology

Lying is a complex human behavior. Sometimes it's done to protect someone's feelings; other times, it may be done for personal gain. But what happens when lying goes beyond an occasional fib and becomes a way of life?

Pathological lying is often defined as a long-standing, habitual pattern of telling falsehoods that may not have any apparent motive or benefit. The lies told can range from the slightly exaggerated to the entirely fabricated, and they often serve no immediate or apparent purpose.

Why should you care about understanding the signs of pathological lying? For one, the impact of pathological lying isn't confined to the liar alone; it extends to everyone around them. It can ruin relationships, lead to job losses, and even result in legal consequences. Recognizing the signs early can help you protect yourself and maybe even help the liar seek treatment.

What is Pathological Lying?

interconnected dots

Pathological lying is a concept that goes far beyond the fibs and white lies that people might tell occasionally. Imagine someone who lies almost reflexively, where the boundary between truth and fabrication is consistently blurred.

Unlike those little "white lies" you might tell to avoid hurting someone's feelings, pathological lying is a more severe and persistent form of dishonesty. It's a behavior that has baffled psychologists, doctors, and even legal experts for years.

While a child might lie about having cleaned their room to avoid getting into trouble, or an adult might lie about why they're late to work, pathological liars engage in deceptive behavior frequently, often without good reason. This type of lying differs from standard lying in its frequency, spontaneity, and its often self-defeating nature.

Some experts have proposed specific diagnostic criteria for pathological lying, although it is not universally recognized as a distinct mental health disorder. However, many psychopaths, sociopaths, and narcissists pathologically lie.

Pathological liars lie more than just occasionally; they lie almost compulsively. They tell lies that might seem believable at first but often fall apart under scrutiny. But if they get so used to it, it can even be hard to figure out if they’re lying through their body language, because even they might start to believe it!

In many cases, pathological liars experience difficulty keeping track of their fabrications, leading to inconsistencies when their stories are questioned. It becomes an exhausting cycle of covering one lie with another, which can be mentally and emotionally draining not just for the liar but also for people around them.

Though pathological lying is not officially classified as a standalone disorder in diagnostic manuals like the DSM-5, it is often seen in conjunction with other psychological disorders. Some psychologists argue that it should be categorized as an impulse control disorder, similar to kleptomania or pyromania.

Examples of Pathological Lies and How to Detect Them

  1. Lie: "I graduated top of my class from Harvard."
    Detection Hint: Ask for specific professors or classes; look for inconsistencies in the story or check alumni records.
  2. Lie: "I used to be a professional athlete."
    Detection Hint: Check for any public records or news articles; ask for specific career highlights that should be easy to verify.
  3. Lie: "I've never been late to work."
    Detection Hint: Cross-reference with employment records or speak with coworkers to check the claim's validity.
  4. Lie: "I have a twin sibling."
    Detection Hint: Ask for photos or names, or why no one has ever met or heard of this twin.
  5. Lie: "I was just talking to [celebrity name] on the phone."
    Detection Hint: Ask about the context of the conversation and why they'd be talking to that celebrity. Look for inconsistencies.
  6. Lie: "I saved someone's life over the weekend."
    Detection Hint: Press for details. If the story sounds far-fetched or lacks concrete details, it might be a lie.
  7. Lie: "I earned a black belt in karate."
    Detection Hint: Ask for the name of their instructor or the location where they trained. A real black belt would have specific and consistent details.
  8. Lie: "I’m fluent in six languages."
    Detection Hint: Ask them to speak in those languages or describe their learning process in detail.
  9. Lie: "I used to work for the CIA."
    Detection Hint: This claim is tough to verify due to the secretive nature of the work, but inconsistencies or vagueness can be telling.
  10. Lie: "I wrote a best-selling book under a pen name."
    Detection Hint: Ask for specific details about the book, such as its plot or characters. Check for any copyright or publishing information.
  11. Lie: "I won a Nobel Prize but kept it a secret."
    Detection Hint: Nobel Prizes are public and easily verifiable. Simply look up the list of winners.
  12. Lie: "I own multiple homes around the world."
    Detection Hint: Ask for addresses or pictures. Cross-reference the information if possible.
  13. Lie: "I've never told a lie."
    Detection Hint: This is a red flag in itself; everyone has lied about something at some point.
  14. Lie: "I'm related to [historical figure]."
    Detection Hint: Ask about the family history and how they traced this lineage. Cross-reference with known genealogical records if possible.
  15. Lie: "I’ve beaten cancer twice."
    Detection Hint: While sensitive, asking for details like doctors or treatment plans can provide verification opportunities.

The Study of Pathological Lying

The term "pathological lying" can be traced back to a German publication by Anton Delbrück in 1891. Delbrück was a German physician intrigued by patients who exhibited an extreme pattern of compulsive lying, far removed from what was commonly seen in most people.

This publication marked one of the first academic attempts to understand this form of deceit. Since then, pathological lying has been a subject of study in psychology, psychiatry, and criminology.

Although the concept has been around for over a century, it remains a subject of debate among professionals. One reason for this is the challenge in setting a diagnostic benchmark that can be universally applied.

Early theories regarding pathological lying centered around psychoanalysis, focusing on an individual's past and underlying psychological motives. Over the years, other theories have emerged, incorporating social, cognitive, and even biological factors. This interdisciplinary interest shows the complexity of the issue.

Despite its long history, the term remains ambiguous due to a lack of consensus on its definition, its causes, and its impact. Various scales and tests have been developed to identify pathological liars, but no single method has been universally accepted.

Theories About Pathological Lying

Given the complexity of human behavior and psychology, it's no surprise that multiple theories attempt to explain pathological lying. Let's delve into some of the most prominent ones.

Psychoanalytic Theory: Rooted in the works of Sigmund Freud, psychoanalytic theory suggests that lying could be a defense mechanism to cope with internal conflicts, often tracing back to early life experiences. Childhood traumas, neglect, or inconsistent parenting styles could potentially trigger a habit of lying as a form of escapism or as a coping mechanism.

Cognitive Theory: Here, the focus is on the mental processes behind pathological lying. According to cognitive theorists, pathological liars may have a distorted perception of reality. They may lie as an impulsive response, without fully processing the potential outcomes or consequences. This theory often entertains the notion that pathological lying can be unlearned through cognitive behavioral therapy or other forms of intervention.

Sociocultural Theory: Sociocultural theorists argue that environmental factors play a significant role. In a society where lying can sometimes be rewarded—think of sensational journalism, reality TV shows, or social media influencers who exaggerate for views—some individuals might be encouraged to lie to gain attention, fame, or other social rewards.

Biological Factors: Some research suggests that pathological lying may have a neurological basis. Though research is in its early stages, some studies point to abnormalities in the brain structures or functions of habitual liars. There is also ongoing research into whether there might be a genetic predisposition to pathological lying, though conclusive evidence has yet to be found.

Myths and Misconceptions About Pathological Lying

The realm of pathological lying is fraught with misunderstandings. Here are some myths that need debunking:

  • They Always Know They Are Lying: A common misconception is that pathological liars are always aware of their lies. The reality is more nuanced. Some pathological liars get so caught up in their fabrications that they begin to believe them, blurring the lines between their lies and reality.
  • They Are Always Manipulative: While some pathological liars use lies to manipulate others, this is not always the case. Some lie impulsively, without forethought, or even in situations where the truth would serve them better.
  • They Are Bad People: Labeling a pathological liar as a 'bad person' oversimplifies a complex issue. Many are struggling with underlying psychological issues that require medical attention. While the behavior may be harmful, it is often symptomatic of larger, treatable issues.

By dispelling these myths, we can approach the topic of pathological lying with a more nuanced understanding, one that takes into account the multi-faceted nature of this behavior.

Diagnosing Pathological Lying

The Role of the DSM-5

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) is often considered the Bible of psychiatric diagnosis. However, it's important to note that pathological lying is not officially recognized as a standalone mental health disorder in the DSM-5.

Instead, it's often categorized under symptoms of personality disorders like Borderline Personality Disorder, Antisocial Personality Disorder, or Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

Some experts argue that this lack of classification can hinder effective treatment because it downplays the severity and impact of pathological lying on both the individual and their relationships.

Others, however, believe that pathological lying is better understood as a symptom of other, more encompassing psychological issues rather than a disorder on its own.

Assessment Tools

There is no single, definitive test to diagnose someone as a pathological liar. The most common methods of assessment are psychological evaluations and interviews conducted by mental health professionals. In some cases, a series of questionnaires and self-reports may be used to gauge the extent and impact of the lying behavior.

Clinical interviews often focus on the frequency, triggers, and consequences of lying, as well as any accompanying emotions like guilt or anxiety. The aim is to build a comprehensive profile that can help identify any underlying disorders or issues that may be contributing to the pathological lying.

The Role of Polygraphs

Polygraph tests, often referred to as lie detector tests, have been used in an attempt to identify deceit. However, it's essential to note that polygraph tests are not always reliable.

Pathological liars may have become so adept at lying that the physiological responses normally associated with deception—like increased heart rate or sweating—are not triggered. In addition, many legal jurisdictions do not accept polygraph results as evidence in court.

Distinguishing from Other Types of Lies

shattered mirror

Pathological lying can be differentiated from other types of lies by examining several factors:

  1. Frequency: Pathological liars lie more often and more consistently than others.
  2. Motive: While most people lie for a reason—such as to avoid punishment or to gain something—the pathological liar often lies without a clear motive.
  3. Complexity: The stories spun by pathological liars can be incredibly complex, often involving intricate details and extended narratives that can span long periods.
  4. Believability: While most people try to tell lies that are plausible, pathological liars may tell far-fetched stories that are easily disproven, yet stick to their lies doggedly.
  5. Consequence: Ordinary lies usually have a point or an end-goal. In contrast, pathological lies often lead to negative outcomes for the liar, making the lying self-defeating in nature.

Coexisting Conditions

As mentioned earlier, pathological lying often accompanies other psychological conditions. In such cases, it's crucial to treat the underlying disorder, as focusing solely on the lying behavior may not result in lasting change.

For example, if the pathological lying is a symptom of Borderline Personality Disorder, treatment might involve therapy methods like Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) to address emotional regulation and interpersonal effectiveness, which could, in turn, reduce the compulsion to lie.

Signs of Pathological Lying

Inconsistencies and Contradictions

One of the most telling signs of pathological lying is the presence of inconsistencies and contradictions in the stories told. Because pathological liars lie frequently and about a wide range of topics, keeping track of all the lies becomes an almost impossible task. Over time, these inconsistencies pile up.

For instance, a person might claim to have a degree from a university in one conversation and then later say they never went to college. These discrepancies often become red flags for those listening.

Lack of Emotional Response

Most people show some form of stress or discomfort when they're lying, like avoiding eye contact or fidgeting. Pathological liars, however, often don't show these typical signs of deceit.

They can lie effortlessly, without any apparent emotional distress. Some might even appear overly confident or unflinchingly calm when questioned, which can make them difficult to spot.

Unverifiable Stories

Pathological liars often tell stories that are unverifiable. They might say they were top of their class at a prestigious university, or claim to have worked at a job they never had. When others try to verify these stories, they either run into dead-ends or discover that the information provided doesn't check out. The pathological liar, however, usually has a backup lie or excuse ready to explain away these discrepancies.

Frequent Job or Relationship Turnover

A history of frequent job changes or troubled relationships can sometimes be a sign of pathological lying. The instability often arises because lies eventually catch up with the liar. Employers or romantic partners may discover the deceit, leading to termination of employment or breakdown of relationships.

This pattern can be a significant clue to the presence of pathological lying, though it's important to remember that frequent job or relationship turnover can be due to other factors as well.

Victim Mentality

Many pathological liars often portray themselves as victims. They might use their fabricated stories to gain sympathy or manipulate others emotionally. This victim mentality serves a dual purpose: it draws attention away from their lying behavior and creates an emotional bond with the listener, making the latter less likely to question the veracity of their stories.

Love for Drama and Attention

Pathological liars often have a knack for being at the center of dramatic situations. Whether it's a medical emergency, a family crisis, or a run-in with a celebrity, they always seem to have an exciting or heart-wrenching story to share. This penchant for drama serves to keep them in the spotlight and often distracts from any questions or doubts that others might have about their honesty.

Manipulative Behavior

While not all pathological liars are manipulative, many do exhibit manipulative tendencies. They may use their lies to control situations or people, furthering their own interests at the expense of others.

For example, they might lie to a co-worker about a project deadline to get an advantage or deceive a partner about their past to avoid uncomfortable questions. This manipulative behavior is often a sign that the lying serves a deeper, more calculating purpose.

The Impact of Pathological Lying

broken heart

Impact on Personal Relationships

One of the most immediate and devastating impacts of pathological lying is the erosion of trust in personal relationships. Whether it's a friendship, a romantic partnership, or a family bond, lies have a way of breaking down the foundation of trust that these relationships are built on.

Over time, the deceived party may start to question not only the lies they've discovered but also the validity of their entire relationship with the liar. This often leads to emotional and psychological distress, causing relationships to end or change irreversibly.

Professional Consequences

In a professional setting, being a pathological liar can be career-ending. Employers value trust and integrity, and the discovery of constant lying can lead to immediate dismissal.

Additionally, in careers where public trust is vital—such as in law, medicine, or public service—a reputation for lying can be particularly devastating. The individual may face legal consequences or professional disbarment, leading to long-lasting repercussions on their career and reputation.

Legal Ramifications

Pathological lying can also have serious legal consequences. From lying under oath in a court of law to providing false information on legal documents, the lies can quickly escalate into criminal activities. If discovered, this could result in severe punishments, including fines, public shaming, or even imprisonment.

Therefore, pathological lying is not just a matter of moral or ethical concern; it can also be a legal issue with grave implications.

Mental Health Effects on the Liar

The person engaged in pathological lying is also at risk of experiencing adverse mental health effects. Living a life based on deceit can lead to anxiety, depression, and even a distorted sense of self.

Moreover, the stress of maintaining a web of lies can be mentally exhausting, leading to emotional breakdowns or a sense of isolation. It's a self-destructive cycle that's challenging to break without professional intervention.

Impact on Society

While the immediate impact of pathological lying is often felt most acutely by those directly deceived, it also has a broader societal impact.

For instance, in the age of social media, lies can quickly go viral, leading to misinformation or disinformation campaigns that can influence public opinion and even elections. In extreme cases, pathological liars who attain positions of power could misuse their authority, causing substantial harm on a wide scale.

Emotional Toll on Victims

The emotional toll on those deceived by a pathological liar can be heavy. Feelings of betrayal, hurt, and confusion are common reactions. Some people may even start to doubt their own judgment or reality, leading to a psychological phenomenon known as "gaslighting." The long-term emotional stress can result in anxiety, depression, or trust issues in future relationships.

Treatment Options for Pathological Lying


One of the most effective methods for treating pathological lying is through psychotherapy or counseling. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is often employed to help individuals become aware of their lying and the thought patterns that lead to it. By identifying triggers and problematic behaviors, the person can learn healthier coping mechanisms and communication skills.


There is no medication specifically designed to treat pathological lying. However, if the lying is a symptom of another mental health condition like anxiety or bipolar disorder, medication can sometimes be used to treat the underlying issue, which can, in turn, reduce the lying behavior. Always consult a healthcare provider for an accurate diagnosis and appropriate medication.

Group Therapy

Group therapy sessions can also be beneficial, especially when the pathological lying is part of a more extensive set of behavioral or interpersonal issues. Sharing experiences and coping strategies in a group setting can help individuals understand the impact of their lies on others and encourage them to take responsibility for their actions.

Family and Couples Therapy

Pathological lying can have a devastating impact on relationships, making family and couples therapy another useful treatment approach. Therapy can help repair damaged trust and provide a safe space for open communication. The therapist may work on conflict resolution techniques and coping mechanisms for all parties involved.

Accountability Measures

For some, setting up external accountability measures can be helpful. This might include regular check-ins with a trusted friend or family member, or more formal arrangements like workplace evaluations. While this is a more practical approach, it can be an effective supplement to psychological therapies.

Long-Term Support and Maintenance

Treatment for pathological lying is often a long-term commitment that may require ongoing support. Even after undergoing successful therapy, the propensity to revert to lying can remain. Continued counseling, possibly combined with medications for coexisting conditions, can provide the long-term support needed to manage the behavior.

The Importance of Early Intervention

Addressing pathological lying as soon as it's identified is crucial for effective treatment. The longer the behavior continues, the more ingrained it becomes, making treatment more challenging and potentially less effective. Early intervention can make a significant difference in the outcome and can prevent the severe consequences associated with chronic lying.

Are You a Pathological Liar? Quiz

Here's a 15-question quiz designed to help you determine if you might be exhibiting tendencies of pathological lying.

Instructions: Answer the following questions honestly. Assign yourself 1 point for each "Yes" answer and 0 points for each "No" answer.

  1. Do you often find yourself lying for no apparent reason?
  2. Do you create elaborate stories that are untrue to impress people?
  3. Have you ever lied about achievements that you have not actually accomplished?
  4. Do you lie to avoid getting into trouble, even for minor things?
  5. Do you continue to lie even when you're caught in a lie?
  6. Do you feel a sense of thrill or excitement when you get away with a lie?
  7. Have your lies ever had serious consequences on your personal relationships?
  8. Do you find it difficult to keep track of the lies you've told?
  9. Have you ever used a lie to manipulate someone into doing something for you?
  10. Do you lie about things that could easily be checked or verified?
  11. Have you ever lied about a medical condition or illness?
  12. Do you often lie about your whereabouts or activities?
  13. Do you find that lying comes more naturally to you than telling the truth?
  14. Have you ever created a false identity, online or otherwise, to deceive others?
  15. Do you lie to make yourself appear more interesting or attractive?


  • 0-4 Points: You likely do not exhibit behaviors associated with pathological lying.
  • 5-9 Points: You may occasionally lie, but it's worth examining why and how often this occurs.
  • 10-15 Points: Your answers suggest a pattern of habitual lying. It's strongly recommended to consult a healthcare provider for a proper evaluation.


Pathological lying is a complex and often misunderstood phenomenon. Throughout this article, we have explored its definition, compared it with other forms of dishonesty, delved into the psychology behind it, examined its impact on relationships and society, and finally, looked at available treatment options.

Recognizing the signs of pathological lying can be challenging, especially because the lies can be so convincing and woven into the fabric of the liar's life. However, awareness is the first step towards addressing the issue.

Whether you suspect that you or someone you know is a pathological liar, the importance of professional intervention cannot be overstated.

Treatment for pathological lying is usually a long journey that involves a combination of therapy, medication, and long-term support. The issue often coexists with other mental health conditions, requiring a multifaceted approach for effective management. Early intervention can make a significant difference, offering a better chance for the individual to rebuild broken relationships and regain their integrity.

The impact of pathological lying extends far beyond the individual, affecting families, workplaces, and even society at large. Hence, understanding this phenomenon is crucial not just for those directly affected, but for everyone.

To aid in self-evaluation, we also included a quiz designed to shed light on lying tendencies. While not a diagnostic tool, it can serve as a wake-up call to seek professional help.

It's important to note that while lying is a universal human behavior, pathological lying is a severe and disruptive form of dishonesty that needs to be addressed for the well-being of all involved. Knowledge, understanding, and professional help are the keys to unraveling the web of lies and building a more truthful, healthier future.

Reference this article:

Practical Psychology. (2023, September). Pathological Liar Signs (Definition + Quiz). Retrieved from

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