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Is every pathologic liar a psychopath or a sociopath?

Several weeks ago I introduced the idea that lying is the cardinal symptom of sociopathy/psychopathy. I believe that every sociopath/psychopath compulsively lies. Judging from the number of comments to the article, The cardinal sign of sociopathy: Every sociopath ______! you all agree with me. Since every sociopath lies, it is reasonable to ask if we can use lying behavior to help us identify sociopaths. The problem is that from time to time nearly everyone lies for any number of reasons, so lying is a rather non-specific finding in a person. It is instead pathologic lying that characterizes sociopaths and psychopaths.

In a recent paper, Pathological Lying Revisited (J Am Acad Psychiatry Law 33:342–9, 2005), Dr. Charles Dike and colleagues from Yale University discuss pathologic lying. They define pathologic lying as, “falsification entirely disproportionate to any discernible end in view, may be extensive and very complicated, and may manifest over a period of years or even a lifetime.” To translate, pathologic liars tell elaborate tales and the motivation for telling these tales is not always financial gain. Pathologic liars lie for pleasure, sometimes even when the truth sounds better. However, lying is by definition an interpersonal process, where one person attempts to impact another. In my opinion, there is always obvious gain in lying in that the end is impacting another person’s view of reality.

In support of the argument that the gain of pathologic lying is impacting another person’s view of reality, some have suggested that the root of pathologic lying is a person’s desire to play the role of the person depicted in the lie. There is a double consciousness in which two forms of life run side by side, the actual and the desired/depicted. In the liar’s mind the fantasy role and real life are not entirely separated. The role becomes the focus of the liar’s consciousness and that is why pathologic liars lie so easily.

Pathologic lying can be found in other conditions besides sociopathy and psychopathy. It has also been described in borderline personality disorder. But remember that this condition has been suggested by some to be very similar to sociopathy. Prominent clinicians have asserted that pathologic lying does not occur outside of psychopathy. In an important paper written in 1942, The psychiatric aspects of the pathological liar (Nerv Child 1:335–50), Dr. Selling said that “obvious mental disease, particularly a diagnosable psychopathic personality of some type” was responsible for pathologic lying.

Lest you now feel confident that you can diagnose sociopathy and/or psychopathy in your pathologic liar, I have to tell you that Dr. Cleckley himself stated that pathologic lying could occur in “normal people.” In a foot note on page 33 of The Mask of Sanity you will find the following quote:

“Such traits can occasionally be found even in wise and reliable people. A highly regarded and respected friend of mine, a doctor of philosophy, recently appointed professor of physics in a small but distinguished college, and the author of several useful and accurate contributions to scientific literature, is the first who comes to mind. This distinguished man has often regaled groups of acquaintances, myself among them, with accounts of working his way through the university by playing professional ice hockey at night, later setting type on a newspaper for several hours, rising before daylight to stoke tugboats on the waterfront, riding thirty-four miles to a high school to teach one subject and thirty-four miles back, as well as keeping house in a three-room apartment shared with six aviators and relieving the janitor of the building one hour during each twenty-four. All these activities were spoken of as being carried out simultaneously and along with full-time work at the university. He described in great detail and with apparent familiarity the duties of these positions. His only studying, he said, was done on the subway en route to his various duties. The same friend once came up from behind while another man and I were commenting on the height of a cliff on which we stood. The hazards of a dive from the position were being idly discussed. The newcomer at once estimated, probably with commendable accuracy, the height, the angle of landing, and all the technicalities of such a dive. He then launched into an astonishing description of a dive he had made in early youth from a bridge 167 feet above the Guadalquiver. One of the students to whom this excellent scholar lectures stated that it is the custom for each succeeding class to tabulate his adventures and their duration in these pseudoreminiscences and there from compute his age. The top figure so far is 169 years. Several classes have bettered 150. The students have great respect for him and confidence in him, as a teacher and as a man. They are particularly devoted to him. Let it be clearly understood that the person discussed in this footnote is not being brought forward as illustrative of the subject of this study. He is no part of a psychopath. He is, in fact, a character whose essential traits lie at the opposite extreme. The reminiscences here ascribed to him are not told boastfully or for the purpose of shielding himself or of gaining any material end. He is strikingly free of arrogance, kind to a remarkable degree, and altogether worthy of his strong reputation as a good and reliable man. His word in any practical matter is to be respected.”

The bolding in the words above is mine. Could Dr. Cleckley himself have missed grandiosity and psychopathy in his friend? I don’t know. Why would a humble person, with no desire to impact others, engage in pathologic lying? Dr. Cleckley says the lying was not boastful, but it does sound like bragging to me.

I think the point Dr. Cleckley made in this footnote is that for him, harm done to others is a defining quality of psychopathy (sociopathy). He knew of no instance where his friend had caused harm to others. The point of harm done is very important to the readers of this blog, many of whom are searching for definitive proof that the person who has done great harm to others financially, emotionally, psychologically and/or spiritually is a sociopath/psychopath. The only definitive proof of psychopathy according to experts like Dr. Hare is a PCL-R score over 30. It is very rare for a victim to have the benefit of an official PCL-R score on a perpetrator.

As I read the scientific literature, I am struck by the fact that many people psychiatrists would consider psychopaths do not in fact score over 30 on the PCL-R. To make matters worse there are many who score 20-29 on the PCL-R who have done great harm. Remember, Dr. Hare initially intended his scale to predict recidivism, it is only recently the scale has been used to define psychopathy.

I am passionate about my believe that the combination of harm done to others and personality attributes be used to define sociopathy/psychopathy. We know that not all unempathetic or callous individuals do harm to others. Furthermore, not all who do harm to others do so because they are callous and unempathetic. It is the combination of harm and personality type that is the real issue.

In conclusion then, if a pathological liar has done great harm to you, s/he is most certainly a sociopath/psychopath.



64 Comments on "Is every pathologic liar a psychopath or a sociopath?"

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  1. Truthspeak says:

    Athena, LOL!!! Yeah…..worse than a 2-year-old, because a child has the possibility of “growing the fark UP!” Spaths? Not so much….



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