Both compulsive lying and pathological lying are a hot topic due to the lack of clear definitions. This article is an attempt to gather all facts supported by strong references.
Compulsive Liar vs. Pathological Liar
There seems to be a lot of confusion about these two terms, and quite a few websites attempted to “clarify” the issue. Unfortunately, they don’t mention any solid references and, due to the nature of the Internet where anyone can write about anything, several theories developed:
1. Pathological liars lie to manipulate people and/or achieve their goals while compulsive liars lie because they simply can’t help it.
2. Compulsive lying disorder doesn’t exist. Compulsive lying is usually a symptom of another psychiatric disorder such as narcissism or bipolar disorder.
3. Compulsive lying and pathological lying are the same thing.
With no reliable sources it’s tough to choose what to believe, but the reality is that the psychiatric community doesn’t have a consensus about compulsive lying or pathological lying. According Dr. Mark Griffiths, a Chartered Psychologist and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit in the Psychology Division at Nottingham Trent University, pathological (or compulsive) lying is not included in either the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5) or the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases (ICD-10) [source].
Although Wikipedia assures that pathological lying is included in DSM-III as a stand-alone disorder as well as a symptom of other disorders, Dr. Charles Dike, a forensic psychiatrist and clinical instructor in psychiatry at Yale University School of Medicine, demanded for pathological lying to be included in DSM back in 2010 [source], which obviously means that it wasn’t included. Even if it was included in DSM-III, it certainly doesn’t exist in DSM-5, which is the latest edition of the book (verified personally). Compulsive lying is not included either.
Needless to say, if the disorder has no official status and even psychiatrists can’t agree on one single definition, our chances to “clarify” the difference between compulsive liar and pathological liar are very slim. Just like “malignant narcissism”, “pathological lying” and “compulsive lying” cannot be used as diagnostic terms. Until one of the two will be given an official status of a disorder, it is probably safe to say that both terms can be used interchangeably.
This isn’t to say that if the term isn’t mentioned in books on psychiatry, then the problem doesn’t exist; but drawing conclusions about exact meaning of these terms or trying to find the difference between the two is not something we should be doing at this stage.
Although it’s possible that pathological lying and compulsive lying will have different official definitions in the future, for now “compulsive lying” is simply another word for pathological lying which isn’t clearly defined either. Other words used to describe the same condition include mythomania, wish psychosis and pseudologia fantastica (“phantastica” is an alternative spelling).
What are the symptoms of pathological or compulsive lying?
Now that we agreed to use the terms “compulsive lying” and “pathological lying” interchangeably, we can look into specific symptoms of pathological lying that most psychiatrists agree on:
- A long history of frequent and repeated lying;
- Lying with no apparent psychological motive or external benefit;
- Even when there appears to be a motive for lying, the lies are so out of proportion to the benefit or the downside is so damaging that most people would consider them senseless.
- Unplanned, impulsive lying;
- Lies are often fantastic in nature and are easily verifiable;
- To a certain extent, compulsive liars believe their own lies but may partially acknowledge their lies when persistently challenged;
- In some cases, lies can be self-incriminating or damaging.
Let’s compare this to ordinary lies. Why do ordinary healthy people sometimes lie?
- To avoid punishment;
- To obtain external benefit;
- To impress (psychological motive);
- Ordinary people don’t usually lie about things that are easy to verify;
- Ordinary people try to make their lies believable and will usually avoid any grandiose claims;
- Ordinary people know they are lying.
The fact that compulsive liars will sometimes tell self-incriminating lies such as admitting to crimes they didn’t commit is particularly intriguing and suggests a pathology. This is the reason why some psychiatrists like Dr. Charles Dike are very outspoken about the necessity of clearly defining pathological lying and including it in the next edition of DSM. This will allow psychiatrists to assess whether or not some people can be held responsible by the legal system.
What are other common features?
According to one study, the average age at onset of pathological lying behavior is 16, and the average age at discovery is 22. The phenomenon occurs in both men and women equally. Generally, pathological liars have an average level of intelligence, although this may vary in some cases. About 40 percent of the study subjects had an evidence of central nervous system dysfunction [abstract], such as epilepsy, abnormal EEG findings, ADHD, head trauma or CNS infections.
According to another study, pathological liars show an increase in white matter (23-36% ) “in orbitofrontal, middle and inferior, but not superior, frontal gyri compared with antisocial and normal controls”. The study concluded that white matter increase in these parts of the brain may predispose some individuals to pathological lying.
What are other similar psychiatric conditions?
Pathological lying can be confused with
- Ganser syndrome,
- or confabulation.
Other associated conditions include:
- Borderline Personality Disorder,
- Antisocial Personality Disorder,
- Factious Disorder,
- Histrionic and Narcissistic Personality Disorders,
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