What to Know About Pathological Liars

Medically Reviewed by Dany Paul Baby, MD on March 08, 2023
5 min read

Someone who lies a lot may be called a “pathological liar.” Dishonesty isn’t a good habit, but it doesn’t always fit the definition of pathological lying. 

Pathological liars are frequently untruthful for no good reason. They harm themselves with their behavior, but keep doing it despite any consequences‌.

Lying is a common behavior in humans. When someone tells a lie, there's often a clear reason they do so. Lying may be used as a tool to achieve a goal.

But pathological lying is often done without any reason and regardless of consequences. These lies are extensive and elaborate, and the urge to tell them is compulsive. Pathological liars often make up stories, even if that causes them harm. They may lose jobs and ruin relationships because of their lying.‌

It isn’t clear whether pathological liars understand that what they say isn’t true. Some people believe the things they say, even when those things are clearly false. Other pathological liars will admit that they've been lying only when their lies are proved false.

Pathological lying usually starts when a person is in their teens. They often continue the pattern for years. 

This behavior can be part of a personality disorder such as antisocial, narcissistic, and histrionic. Other conditions, such as borderline personality disorder, may also lead to frequent lies, but these aren't considered pathological. Also, some people simply lie pathologically but have no other conditions.

Psychiatrists have recognized pathological lying for hundreds of years. It’s also called “pseudologia fantastica” or “mythomania.” It isn’t listed as an official diagnosis in the psychiatric guidebook called the DSM-V. But it's a real and troubling condition.‌

Regardless of the reason for lying, it can be upsetting to be lied to. If someone lies to you a lot, you can learn to spot their lies. You can also support them if they decide to get treatment.

Experts look for four main behaviors when trying to figure out if someone is a pathological liar:

Excessive lying. Pathological liars lie more than others. They make up stories that sound real enough that people believe them. They then add more lies to back up the original lies. The lies they tell can be outlandish and easily disproved. For example, they might falsely claim to have received an award or say that still-living family members died.

Lying without good reason. Many people tell small lies to avoid unpleasant consequences, like saying they were late because of traffic instead of admitting that they overslept. But pathological liars don’t have a clear motive. They tell stories that don’t benefit them and might actually hurt them when the truth comes out.

Long-term problem. Pathological lying usually happens for years. It often begins when in the teens and continues indefinitely, into all areas of life. Their dishonesty might be the thing people remember most about them.

The lying is not a symptom of other mental illness. A pathological liar might have other mental conditions such as depression or anxiety. But that isn’t the cause of their lying. Pathological lying is a condition, not a symptom of something else.

Treating this behavior is complicated. No medication will fix it. The best option is psychotherapy, but even that can pose challenges. That's because pathological liars may lie to their therapist instead of addressing their lying behavior.

Treatment will depend on what they need and what they respond to during therapy sessions. Finding a qualified, experienced therapist for the long term is key to managing this condition.‌

If you or someone you know has symptoms of pathological lying, it’s important to get help. 

Everyone lies. Maybe it's to avoid hurting someone’s feelings or to escape uncomfortable situations. These are generally known as “white lies,” because they're intended to avoid harm and they're about trivial matters. Many white lies are only partially false or exaggerate the truth.

Sometimes, people lie to avoid getting in trouble or to protect themselves from a threat. These lies are generally more complete fabrications. They tend to be about serious or self-serving matters. This type of lie is known as a “gray lie,” since it’s less likely to be socially acceptable than a white lie.

Finally, some people lie for malicious reasons. These lies often carry serious consequences for other people and may lead to situations that are unfair or unjust. Any malicious lie is generally considered a “real lie,” which is socially unacceptable. 

People who lie pathologically usually tell gray or real lies.

Many people have “tells”  when they lie that signal when they aren’t telling the truth. But there's no one-size-fits-all way to tell when someone is lying. Instead, pay attention to that person specifically. If someone you know lies to you a lot, look for these signs.

Contradictory stories. When someone isn't telling the truth, they may have a hard time keeping details of their story straight. Someone who lies frequently will eventually lose track of previous lies and start to contradict them. If you notice this, they may be lying. 

Unverifiable details. They may add details to make their lies seem more realistic. Studies show that pathological liars tend to include details that can't be verified. 

Overly dramatic or long stories. Lies are more likely to be dramatic and long. If someone often has anecdotes about overly dramatic or intense situations, they may be lying.

Living with someone who lies frequently can be stressful and uncomfortable. If you want to maintain a relationship with them, there are a few things you can do:

Stay calm. Many people who lie a lot will react poorly if you show anger. If you believe you are being lied to, remain calm.

Don’t engage with lies. If you know something isn’t true, there’s no reason to act like it is. Supporting another person's lies will only reinforce their behavior. Instead, let them know that you know they're lying and stop the conversation.

Suggest medical treatment. If the person who's lying seems distressed by their lies, you might suggest they get professional help. Therapy can help them confront the root of their lying and may lead to changed behavior.