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Deliberately Untruthful: Normal vs. Abnormal Lying

Everyone lies at some point. When children reach 2-3 years old, they can understand the rules set in place by parents. They can also break them. When children become teenagers, the art of deception often increases. Usually, this stage of lying is normal. Abnormal lying occurs when the reasons for the lies change.

These two scenarios demonstrate normal lying versus compulsive and pathological lying:

Mark enjoyed his job even though it was stressful. He worked six days a week and although his wife had voiced her concern about a lack of quality time together, he continued to work long hours. Every year, despite the workload, Mark planned an extravagant vacation-weekend for their anniversary.

This year, Mark forgot. Mark was too busy with his clients and did not think about the time of year, thus forgetting his anniversary. Mark felt awful. Instead of telling his wife he forgot their anniversary, Mark said he was forced to train several new employees and therefore had no time to plan their vacation. This is “normal” lying.

Even if the lie is not a “white lie,” there is a motivation behind it. Mark does not want to get in trouble with his wife and, to avoid the complications of truth, he lies. The purpose is clear. The solution, while not the best, is logical.

But what if Mark had grown up in a Midwestern town no one had heard of and upon relocating to a brand new company, he decided to tell people he came from New York? Or what if Mark, unprompted, told his coworkers that instead of the cold he appeared to have, he was actually diagnosed with cancer? These types of lies seem to have no real external purpose. They fuel the internal personality and identity of the person lying. Almost every lie propels the way the liars want others to see them.

In a sense, compulsive or pathological liars are lying to create a false sense of identity in which they can control. 

The difference between pathological and compulsive liars is thin, but distinct. The intention of pathological liars differs from compulsive liars when their sense of empathy is questioned. Pathological liars demonstrate little care for others and tend to be manipulative in other aspects of their life. They lie with such conviction that at times, pathological liars can actually believe the lies they tell. Pathological lying is frequently found in personality disorders such as Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, and Antisocial Personality Disorder.

Compulsive liars have very little control over their lying. They may be saying the same lies as the pathological liar, but their intent is different. Usually compulsive liars lie out of habit. They have no goal in lying, but they cannot stop. Compulsive lying may be relatively harmless, but is still alarming to those who witness this behavior. They lie with such consistency that they are usually discovered by others in their social circle.

Warning Signs of Unusual Lying Include:

  • Lying without a clear cause
  • Unbelievable and fantastical lies
  • Lies that paint the personality of the liar in a favorable light
  • Frequent lies that have a grain of truth to them
  • Frequent talk of grandiosity
  • Lying even when caught

If you or someone you know has a problem with compulsive or pathological lying, treatment will be impossible if the patients are not able to admit to their lying. Only when the therapist understands the problem at hand, can he/she help to correct the behavior.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is recommended with a trained therapist who has worked with compulsive/pathological lying. Often times, unhealthy lying is part of a larger disorder. If diagnosed with a personality disorder, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy has a higher rate of success than CBT.

Like all changes in behavior, practice is required.

Deliberately Untruthful: Normal vs. Abnormal Lying


Rebecca Lee

Rebecca Lee lives in Charlottesville, Virginia. She has published with: Harvard, Adbusters, The Virginian Pilot etc. Her book, Object Relations, is due for publication in July.


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APA Reference
Lee, R. (2018). Deliberately Untruthful: Normal vs. Abnormal Lying. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 9, 2019, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/deliberately-untruthful-normal-vs-abnormal-lying/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 2 Oct 2017)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych Central.com. All rights reserved.