Chronic Lying

A teenage boy timidly looking at a teenage girl beside him.

When a person asks you who do you think chronically lies, there are a few answers that come to my mind, that I have heard in various surveys.


Some of these responses are (In no special order):

  • Lawyers
  • Con men
  • Adulterers
  • Criminals
  • Petty thieves
  • Hustlers
  • Car salesmen

If you notice, this list includes people who would essentially “Lie for a living.” If you were to take it to the extreme.

However, these are extreme over-generalizations, and the majority of people in these groups, while I do not deny lie occasionally as a way to reach their goal, I would also ask a much simpler question of everyone else: Who among you has not done the same?

So, with this in mind, I would like to focus on the person who TRULY chronically lies. These people do not need a reason to lie. They are not lying to avoid trouble, to obtain financial gain, or better themselves necessarily. They are lying for the sake of lying, and oftentimes are not even realizing they are doing it. These are in fact the masters of deception that are the chronic liars.

It has been hypothesized that chronic or pathological lying is not a mental disorder of it’s own. In fact, it is not recognized in the DSM-IV (The Diagnostic Manual used to describe mental illnesses). Instead, it is viewed as a symptom of another mental disorder that is present, such as delusional thinking, psychopathy, or narcissism.

However, we are now looking at studies of pathological liars over the last 100 years, and a number of conclusions have been made, some obvious, others not. The first is that the reasons for lying may have a serious problem behind them, while others are benign. When no underlying mental illness can be found, then the focus of “Why does this successful, otherwise well-adjusted person feel the compulsion to fabricate stories?”

We do know that in a normal, healthy person, some lying and deception is normal, and starts at about the age of 5 or 6 years old. It continues through adulthood, and most adults will tell small lies on a weekly or even daily basis to get through their days, using harmless and inconsequential lies. In one research study at the University of Massachusetts, people wore a recording device for 3 days, and at the end tallied up the number of lies they told. The average rate of lies as 3 in every 10 minutes of conversation.

White Lies

The nature of these lies falls into what is known as the “white lie” category. These are used for a number of purposes:

  • To avoid hurting another person’s feelings
  • To cover up our own embarrassments
  • To reassure the needlessly anxious
  • To spare unnecessary headaches

When does social “white lying” become a problem? When it becomes the first line of defense – the first tool used a coping strategy.

There are a number of other key items to look for when evaluating whether a person is suffering from a case of chronic lying. First, if they lie to avoid something, be it a test, a deadline or project, and then need to have the lie proliferate on itself in order to be believed, and it keeps growing, is a sign. Secondly, chronic liars change their stories when caught out, and support the new story with another lie. Finally, when a person lies for no reason at all, there is no gain, no motivation to lie.

It is believed that there may be a neurological defect in those who are chronic liars. They generally have highly developed verbal skills and a slight impairment of the frontal lobe. These frontal lobes are basically our “editors” that censor what we say, which may be indicative of some of the behavior in SOME cases. This is because we sometimes run two consciousnesses in our mind – reality as it exists, and reality as we would like it to be. For those with frontal lobe difficulty, reality as we would like it to be may come out instead of reality as it is.

The reason I said this is the case in SOME people, is that in others, the telling of tales eeks them out their 15 minutes of fame. It allows them to stand out, to be interesting. And the more they receive, they more they want. Additionally, others feel they cannot live up to the expectations of others, so they invent stories to match what they feel others expect from them, With all of these reasons, this may be why no easy cure is on the horizon. Chronic lying seems to stem from either a biological basis or from a rung on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Thus, if we can identify a biological basis, this can be treated in that person. Otherwise, it will take therapy to help identify what is missing from the person’s life, and how they can fill it in a more socially acceptable manner that will prevent them from being further ostracized, leading to more lying, in a vicious cycle.

When we deal with children specifically, there are any number of reasons they may lie, and some may even be acceptable. Whatever the reason, however, it should be taken seriously, as problem lying can cause problems at school, with friends, and disrupt the family life. It may even begin to lay the groundwork for problems later in life.

Lies generally not a serious problem, unless they are habitual (the child regularly lies) or compulsive (lies for no specific reasons). As with many other problems, addressing the issue early can be the most effective way from preventing it from becoming a worse problem or a pathological lying problem.

It isn’t until age 5 or 6 when children begin to lie due to understanding consequences for actions, and feel guilt for misdeeds, especially those that disappoint their parents. They may also expand on stories or fib in order to get attention. At 7-8, the most common reasons for lying are to avoid punishment or to avoid having to do a disliked task.

When adolescence arrives, new significance can be assigned to lies, and parents generally become more alarmed. The adolescent is more skilled at telling lies. However, this is a time when we should not assume that the adolescent is trying to hide something done wrong. They may be attempting to gain privacy, establish independence, avoid embarrassment or protect another’s feelings. This is not to say they are not going to be trying to avoid punishment, chores, or gain items they could not otherwise have.

When does lying become a serious problem? When it is habitual or compulsive, and is used as a major strategy for dealing with difficult situations there is cause for concern. Pathological or chronic lying may be a bad habit the child needs help breaking, but could also be a sign that they are unable to tell right from wrong. This may be especially true if they appear to have no remorse about lying. If the lying is comorbid (associated with) other actions such as skipping school, fighting, stealing, or cheating, it may be they have another disorder such as ADHD, conduct disorder or a learning disorder.

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Derek Wood is a Nationally Board Certified Psychiatric/Mental Health Nurse, and holds a Master's degree in Psychology. His experience in the online arena of mental health can be traced back to 1997, when he was a host for Online Psych on AOL. He joined Get Mental Help, Inc. as Clinical Content Director for Mental Health Matters. Derek, with his wife Lisa, developed the original version of psychTracker (then called A Mood Journal), after his diagnosis with Schizo-Affective Bipolar, when they could not find a system available that was robust enough to help him effectively manage his symptoms and accurately interpret his charting. Derek has worked in the field of mental health since 2001, as a Unit Manager of an adult long-term treatment facility, a charge nurse in an adolescent short-term inpatient facility and long-term residential facility, and as a School Psychologist. He has also written several articles which are being used as CEU for nurses and educators.

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