By SUSAN CALLAHAN, Associate Editor and Featured Columnist
Lately, we started to hear the term "pathological liar" bandied about wit increasing frequency.
The billionaire co-founder of Dreamworks SKG film studio, David Geffen, explained his reluctance to donate to and support then candidate Hillary Clinton before her run for President in 2007 by telling the New York Times that "Everybody in politics lies, but they [the Clintons] do it with such ease it's troubling". Then, just yesterday, Bernie Sanders made headlines by accusing President Donald Trump of being a "pathological liar".
All of which brings us to the question "when does simple lying become pathological lying?" And even though Shakespeare advised that "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet", is a person called a "pathological liar" by his critics simply a clever fellow to those who like him?
How Much Lying Is Normal?
Lying, defined as misrepresenting the truth, may have provided our prehistoric ancestral forbears an evolutionary advantage. A 2013 study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, found that prehistoric humans probably learned that lying helped them to have better human interactions.
After all, it's easier to keep a coupling together when you don't tell your partner that they are subpar hunter compared to the man in the cave next door. Or, more to the point, it's easier to keep a family unit together if you don't tell your partner that you slept with the man in the cave next door.
This evolutionary theory highlights an uncomfortable truth. Lying works. Liars get ahead. At least, they get ahead as long as those of us who are lied to don't catch on to their tricks.
So, what is the difference between an ordinary liar and a pathological liar?
Pathological Liars Are Compulsive Liars?
In evolutionary terms, humans lie to gain an advantage vis-a-vis other humans. We lie to win better mates, to keep ourselves safe, to get a better cave. As the authors of the Royal Society study noted, "Ultimately, this most Machiavellian element of human behavior may be the product of one of our most beneficent characteristics - our tendency to seek mutually cooperative relationships."
Sounds nice when they put it that way, right? "Honey, I didn't tell you I slept with the neighbor because, well, I wanted to protect my mutually cooperative relationship with you." It seems clear that lying quite often is done not to protect or foster "mutually" beneficial relationships but, instead, to maximize the social power of the liar. he gets to keep a relationship with partners in two caves, rather than one.
Ordinary lying, therefore, looks to the outside world for an advantage.
Pathological liars, on the other hand, can't help themselves. They lie habitually, constantly, compulsively over long periods of time. Their motives? Look inward. Pathological liars are lying to satisfy an internal psychological need. They may gain an external advantage or not but that is not their goal.
Pathological lying, otherwise known as pseudologica fantastica, is distinguished from compulsive lying by some psychiatrists. As of today, despite what you may have read elsewhere, pathological lying is not included among the recognized psychological disorders defined in DSM-5, the bible of psychological disorders.
Pathological Liars Are Good Liars?
The quintessential pathological liar is a serial cheater or a person who leads a double life. To shield their infidelity, they must lie repeatedly over a long period of time, becoming expert at the art of persuasion and the art of maintaining consistency in what can be a quite elaborate lie.
Bernard Madoff was a pathological liar. He was able to steal $65 billion from thousands of people, many of them friends or friends of friends, by maintaining an elaborate lie over several decades. He had ice water in his veins, maintaining the lei even when the SEC came close to discovering his secret several times.
If you think of it, he was able to convince the hungry lion that he was not good to eat, even as his head was in the lion's mouth. That takes nerve. And it takes supreme skill.
Like him or not, Bernie Madoff, demonstrated that consummate liars, pathological liars are pretty rare.
Most liars are not skilled enough to carry off a massive lie for decades and to convince people in industries trained to detect fraud -- which is after all another word for lying --- that he is not worth investigating.
How to Tell If Someone You Know Is a Pathological Liar
I believe the distinction between ordinary liars and pathological liars is not so much a difference in type as it is a difference in what they like about. A pathological liar lies habitually because the thing that he has chosen to lie about requires that he lie habitually. he lust lie to keep his side family a secret. He lust lie to keep his Ponzi scheme a secret. Ordinary liars , by contrast, lie about, well, ordinary things.
If you discover that someone has been lying to you about something fundamental to their identity or at the core of your relationship and that lie has gone on for a long time, you should suspect you are dealing with a pathological liar.
Here are some areas that pathological liars lie about:
- their marital status
- whether they have children
- their wealth
- their educational degrees
Pathological liars tend to greatly exaggerate the positive aspects of their background. They are not just smart, they are super smart or geniuses. They are not just rich, they are billionaires many times over. They are not just "traditional family man", they are Mr. Super Traditional Family Man with a Picture Perfect Kids" (though they have kept gay lovers on the side).
The reason pathological liars are so dangerous to us is because they take advantage of a natural human tendency to assume the basics about a person whom we like. Often, when the truth about them is uncovered, the reaction from those who know them is, "wow, he's the last guy I would have suspected".
We lead busy lives. We interact with, rely upon, like and love. It is nearly impossible to go back to Square One and question the fundamental information we think we know about people in our lives. We build our relationships plank on top of plank. Removing a plank a the bottom can make the whole system of trust in them --- and in our own judgement --- topple. Unfortunately, that unwillingness to topple the stack leaves us vulnerable to these predators.