Pathological liars. Serial Killers. Psychopaths.
What makes someone addicted to lying? What is going on in the mind of a serial killer? Are master manipulators crazy?
In this post I want to answer all of these questions and more. We are going to dig into the psychology of psychopaths and pathological liars.
Before we get too far into the science, what do these terms mean?
What is a Pathological Liar? (Definition)
Pathological liars are a type of psychopath who also lie consistently for no apparent reason. The Mayo Clinic describes psychopathy as a personality disorder where the person “typically has no regard for right and wrong. They may often violate the law and the rights of others.” Often, psychopaths have little empathy, have antisocial behavior, and lack inhibitions.
In short, not all psychopaths are pathological liars, but all pathological liars are psychopaths.
This is very disturbing footage of a psychopathic child from the 1990 documentary Child of Rage:
Beth shows what are called “psychopathic tendencies,” which psychologists believe is due to the mistreatment she received at the hands of her parents. Beth is NOT a psychopath; after therapy and strong, loving relationships, Beth is now a fully functioning adult. Luckily, her psychopathic tendencies never grew into true psychopathy.
Psychopathy researchers found that psychopaths often have these common traits:
- lack of empathy, guilt, conscience, or remorse
- shallow experiences of feelings or emotions
- impulsivity, and a weak ability to defer gratification and control behavior
- superficial charm and glibness
- irresponsibility, and a failure to accept responsibility for their actions
- a grandiose sense of their own worth
Were Adolf Hitler, Fidel Castro, Saddam Hussein Psychopaths?
“I’m most fascinated by people who will lie when it is totally unnecessary… There are predatory liars – these are not them. Their lack of self-awareness just seeps into constantly telling stories of who they think they should be or how they think the world works.” Bonnie, Science of People Reader
The CIA has released all kinds of interesting personality reports of historical figures. Read some of the findings below. See any similarities?
Henry A. Murray was tasked with putting together a personality evaluation of Adolf Hitler in 1943. The report concludes that Hitler was a masochist and a suicidal, neurotic narcissist.
In 1961, the CIA’s psychiatric staff put together a report stating Fidel Castro was “so highly neurotic and unstable a personality as to be quite vulnerable to certain kinds of psychological pressure. The outstanding neurotic elements in his personality are his hunger for power and his need for the recognition and adulation of the masses.”
Jerrold Post, the founder of the CIA’s Center for the Analysis of Personality and Political Behavior, found that Saddam’s pursuit of power is tied with messianic dreams and “there is no evidence he is constrained by conscience; his only loyalty is to Saddam Hussein. In pursuing his goals, Saddam uses aggression instrumentally. He uses whatever force is necessary, and will, if he deems it expedient, go to extremes of violence, including the use of weapons of mass destruction…While Hussein is not psychotic, he has a strong paranoid orientation.”
We can’t say conclusively if Hitler, Castro, or Hussein were “psychopaths,” but we can spot some of their tendencies.
Chapter 1: Liars Among Us
Here at the Science of People lab, we ran a survey that gathered data from 144 participants. We found that on a given day:
- 58.3% of people lie between 1-3 times
- 16% lie between 3-5 times
- Only 16.7% said they never lie
Studies show that pathological lying manifests over a period of years and not in a short period of time. It might start with an innocent white lie, then over time lead to many daily devious lies.
Sometimes pathological liars even manifest their dreams as reality—in other words, they start believing what their mind tells them.
Kind of scary, right?
But there’s more to pathological liars than you might think.
For example, do you know how many people are pathological liars in the general population? Continue on to find out.
Chapter 2: All About Pathological Liars
How to Tell if Someone is a Pathological Liar (Spot The Signs!)
According to researchers, psychopaths make up about 1% of the general population and as much as 30% of offenders in federal correctional settings.
Most people might think that liars tend to look down, avoid eye contact, or a nervous smile.
But pathological liars don’t typically show the normal signs of lying.
Pathological liars may be so accustomed to lying that they no longer show obvious signs of lying.
However, there are certain traits you can spot:
Here’s the above image in text form. Pathological liars tend to:
- Have a lack of empathy
- Focus on basic needs, such as food and money
- Find pleasure and gratification in lying
- Speak in terms of cause-and-effect instead of emotions
- Be cunning and manipulative
- Lie just for the sake of lying
These are the most common traits. Read on to find out more:
The Warning Signs of Psychopathy
How do you spot a psychopath in-the-making?
Psychopaths are typically highly impulsive and highly emotional. They are at high risk of substance abuse and incarceration. According to Joseph Newman at the University of Wisconsin:
Psychopaths are very difficult to have relationships with because they lack social kindness and empathy.
Researchers believe that psychopathy has roots in early childhood. Children who show an early lack of fear, indifference towards peers, and who appear callous in the face of emotion are at the greatest risk.
How Psychopaths’ Brains Are Different
Did you know that normal people’s and pathological liars’ brains are different? Specifically, psychopaths exhibit less activity in the amygdala where fear is processed, and in the orbital frontal cortex or regions where decision-making happens.
They also lack empathy.
“I am pretty good lie detector but when it comes from someone close it can be devastating. The liar in my life was an ex-husband who had a double life. One with me, recovery, nice home, and job, and the other with drugs, no job, and other women. The fact that I didn’t see the lies made me feel stupid.”Shelly, Science of People Reader
The study found that psychopaths showed no activity in areas of the brain linked to empathic concern.
Weird, right? Psychopaths and pathological liars might not feel pain when they see others get hurt, like we do.
What other differences do psychopaths have?
The Scientific Personality Traits of Psychopaths
A new study conducted by Austrian researchers Sagioglou and Greitemeyer found certain personality traits linked to liking bitter tasting food and drinks.
500 participants were shown a list of foods from all across the taste spectrum––salty, sour, bitter, sweet–and were instructed to rate how much they liked the foods. Once submitted, the men and women each took a personality test measuring:
- and narcissism
The results of the study revealed that having a preference for bitter tastes is linked to having a “dark personality” or associated with psychopathy, narcissism, and sadism. People who dislike bitter tastes, however, were found to be more agreeable, sympathetic, and cooperative.
“My son is a compulsive liar, to the extent that I can’t believe anything he says without doing a fact check. It is taxing on the relationship as I constantly feel like a private investigator and he feels as if I don’t trust him and therefore don’t love him.”Nadine, Science of People Reader
The researchers theorized that the reason why people with dark personalities have a predilection for bitter tastes was because they enjoy sensation-seeking and super-tasting.
Sensation-seeking: a personality trait defined by the search for experiences and feelings that are “varied, novel, complex, and intense,” and by the readiness to “take physical, social, legal, and financial risks for the sake of such experiences.”
People with darker personalities have a preference for the ups and downs of these intense experiences. Those who enjoy caffeine and spicy foods have already been positively correlated with sensation-seeking. A mild, “normal person,” sensation-seeking experience would be something such as riding a rollercoaster, for example.
Super-tasting: having a high sensitivity to bitter compounds.
Super-tasting has previously been linked to increased emotionality in humans, another characteristic typical of psychopaths. They prefer to eat foods that are bitter. We can speculate that psychopaths would enjoy bitter foods because, in the wild, bitter foods are a warning sign of being poisonous, so they might get a thrill from eating them (again, sensation-seeking behavior).
Normal-behaving people, or “non-tasters,” would find bitter foods unappealing. Those people are also reported to be more relaxed and calm.
With all this in mind, the researchers’ results indicated that people who prefer bitter taste experiences were linked to having more hostile thoughts and behaviors. These are people who checked “yes” next to “given enough provocation, I may hit someone,” and “I enjoy tormenting people.”
In other words, keep a lookout for people who order black coffee at your local coffee shop, or enjoy gin and tonics at the bar—it may give you a key insight into their true personality.
Pathological Liars Talk Different Than Us
Psychopaths tend to describe their crimes using the past tense:
- The use of past tense indicates psychological detachment from a crime.
- The use of present tense can indicate someone is still “going through” the event emotionally,
Psychopaths also were found to use more verbal “hiccups” in their speech like saying “uh” and “umm.” This indicates they need more time to think about their response compared to normal people (aka more time to fabricate lies).
If you notice a lot of past tense and verbal hiccups, this doesn’t exactly mean the person is a psychopath. This is just a couple verbal indicators, like the many other verbal body language cues you can find.
Chapter 3: How to Deal With a Pathological Liar
Stop, Drop, & Go
Whenever you catch a pathological liar lying to you, I want you to remember the technique of Stop, Drop, & Go:
- Stop. Don’t engage the liar in their conversation. Talking about it further might encourage them to continue down their path of lies, spiralling down into a never-ending web.
- Drop. Drop the topic and change it. Immediately talk about something else or start up a new conversation starter topic.
- Go. If all else fails, move on! Don’t try to change a pathological liar who is insistent on further lying.
The Stop, Drop, & Go Method is highly effective, even if you’re engaged in a random conversation with a stranger and they veer off into unwanted convo territory (can you relate?).
Most people know the denial loop. It goes something like:
Denial -> Anger -> Depression -> Acceptance
But for psychopaths, their denial loop usually looks something like this:
If you’ve tried to convince a pathological liar or psychopath of their wrongdoings, it might be a time-waster. Remember: denial is a common tactic used in order to “protect” their reputation.
Instead of getting them to deny, expect it and try avoiding the topic altogether.
Be The Therapist
Sometimes you’re dealing with a psychopath who’s a friend or family member. Maybe they’re constantly lying to you but can’t help it.
In this case, sometimes you have to play therapist:
- Listen without judgment. It might be hard, but try to employ a little compassion the next time you’re faced with a lie from a loved one.
- Rephrase. Often, psychopaths want you to simply hear them. Try rephrasing back to them what they said instead of trying to find solutions.
- Connect them. If you can, try reaching out to their other friends or find a support group. This will lessen the burden on you, too.
Special Note: This does not mean you actually should replace a licensed therapist. Seek help from a licensed professional if real help is needed.
“I Remember it Like This…”
If a pathological liar runs in the family, and you KNOW they’ve made up a lie (childhood, past event, etc.), then you can play the “I remember it like this” card.
This method avoids direct confrontation while avoiding being completely passive. Here’s how it works:
- Pathological liar: “A couple weeks back Vanessa and I went to the swimming pool and a SHARK appeared out of nowhere!!” (obvious lie)
- You: “Hmm, that doesn’t sound right. I remember it like this…”
This is a great way to preserve a person’s emotions while not directly hurting their feelings.
OK, so you’ve tried being indirect. You’ve listened calmly. But now you’ve had enough of their lies and you want to call them out.
Now it’s time to go full on wrestling mode.
Here are some tips to get you through the full-on confrontation:
- Prep. Take your time to say your next words.
- Speak. Speak fully, deeply, and with confidence.
- Make eye contact. Don’t waiver, make good eye contact so they know you really mean it.
- Powerful body language. There’s no backing down now, so use your body language to spell confidence and not weakness. Turn your torso to front them, use active hand gestures, and widen your stance for that extra confidence boost.
Chapter 4: Can Psychopaths be Cured?
“An ex-boyfriend of mine had me believe from the time we first met until we had been dating almost a full year that he was a third-year law student taking a break from his studies. Turns out he had never stepped foot in a law school.”Steph, Science of People Reader
There is no cure for psychopaths, but the sooner psychopathic tendencies are spotted, the more help can be given.
It is incredibly difficult to teach empathy, but loving relationships and therapy can help re-engage healthy social behaviors. The discussion on treating psychopaths is not that different from the conversation about lowering recidivism and helping criminal rehabilitation.
Since researchers estimate that 25% of criminals in state facilities show psychopathic tendencies, we know that the treatment could be one and the same.
One model that has had some success is called the Decompression Model. This was developed by staff at the Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center (MJTC), and is based on the fact that psychopaths don’t think about or respond to punishment the same way as nonpsychopaths (due to brain differences).
In this way, punishment doesn’t discourage bad behavior. In fact, criminal psychopaths are six times more likely than other criminals to commit new crimes following release from prison.
The Decompression Model is all about positive reinforcement.
Whenever good behavior is spotted, staff members at the MJTC immediately offer some kind of reward. This is because even though psychopathic brains don’t respond to punishment, they do respond to rewards. This increases and reinforces learning a new behavior.
Results: Over 300 subjects who were treated at MJTC were matched with similar subjects not treated at MJTC, and followed over a five-year period. Ninety-eight percent of the non-MJTC youth were arrested again within four years, compared to only 64% of MJTC youth. This is a 34% reduction in recidivism!
MJTC youth were 50% less likely to commit a violent crime, and while non-MJTC youth killed 16 people after their release, MJTC youth didn’t commit a single homicide!
Furthermore, detailed economic analysis revealed that “for every $10,000 spent at MJTC, the state of Wisconsin saved $70,000 by reducing the future costs of incarceration.”
Chapter 5: How to Stop Being a Pathological Liar
Are you a pathological liar yourself? The first step is recognizing it. The second step is to take action.
Even if you’re not a full-on pathological liar, see if you catch yourself doing any of the following to minimize your lying tendencies:
DON’T Act Like A Hero
Pathological liars might play hero and act as if they’ve accomplished great things. They might wildly exaggerate stories (“I fought an elephant… On Mount Rushmore… And won!”) or brandish their achievements.
Action Step: If you catch yourself being heroic, I recommend trying to find other ways you can be interesting that don’t rely on lying.
DO Be The Cause, Not The Effect
Pathological liars tend to tell stories and pin themselves as the victim:
- Got fired from their job? The boss wanted them out from the beginning.
- Son ran away from home? He always hated living with them.
- Slipped on a banana peel? It was out to get them!
You see, being the effect or playing the victim game never works. It only leads to toxic behaviors.
Action Step: Instead, try being the cause:
- Reflect. In each situation, ask yourself if there was something you could have done to change it. I like to keep a journal at night time to go over any lessons I learned from my actions.
- Avoid Negaativity. Victim mentality stems from a mindset that everyone is out to get you. You want to avoid all negative thinking—especially with people in your immediate surroundings. Got negative family, friends, or coworkers? Learn how to deal with that negativity here.
- Forgive and Move On. Learning forgiveness is tough! If you’re naturally rebellious, you’ve got to find a way to move on. I find daily meditation keeps my mind from ruminating on the what if’s.
Blabbering is when someone keeps talking, and talking, and talking, and…
But never gets to the point.
We all know someone like that in our life. I’m not saying they’re a pathological liar or psychopath, but pathological liars might respond elaborately and quickly to questions, but provide vague answers that don’t really answer the question.
Story time: I was at the movie theatre a few months back, when I met a supposed “CEO” of a large tech firm. When I asked him how he started the company, he couldn’t explain all the details of actually starting up—he just kept going on about how “cool” his company was.
Action Step: If you’re a blabber, get straight to the point. If you’re telling your new favorite conversation starter or small talk topic, don’t forget to include all the small details. These are the points that often make a story interesting and personal—not to mention credible!
BONUS: Is Lying Ever Justified?
Do I look good in this dress? Should we tell her the truth about what happened to Sparky? Is there any reason lying is justified?
To answer the big question: “Is lying ever OK?” we turned to our readers and gathered their opinions.
Some of them thought lying was NEVER justified. They believed we should be honest at all times and that lying only hurt others:
“I believe lying is never justified. I believe in honesty and truth in every situation. Unless it is to save your own life or when other people lie to me for good intentions. I don’t lie to others even for good intention, but I understand whenever people do it to me. Although I urge those people to tell the truth next time.”Sandra, Science of People Reader
Others thought lies should be used modestly, such as in the cases of white lies. After all, if we are given the ability to lie in the first place, why not use it?
“Yes, if you don’t want to offend someone (e.g. you really don’t want to go to their dinner party for a reason you’d rather not go into – maybe you don’t like who they’ve invited) then maybe it’s OK it say you’ve already got something booked in.”Gill, Science of People Reader
And yet a small minority believe lying is OK most of the time! Give ‘em what they want to hear, and that’s all lying is for.
“Bending the truth makes the world a nicer place!”Jackie, Science of People Reader
What are your opinions about lying? Leave a message below—I’d love to hear them!
The BIG Take-Away
Maybe there is someone in your life who you are thinking shows psychopathic tendencies or pathological lying. If so, this last study with MJTC criminal youth is crucial for you.
When dealing with psychopaths, punishments do not work.
Trying to give consequences, punish, or shame for behavior will only make them worse. Remember, their brain doesn’t respond to punishment and fear in the same way as ours. Positive reinforcement is the kindest and most effective thing you can do. Most importantly, this is a better way to interact in general. Always look for good behavior to reward instead of looking for bad behavior to punish.
Always reward the good, and you will see more of it.
Ready to keep learning? Read on…