There are many reasons why people tell lies. Some are rational. Some are justifiable. “White lies” may spare another person’s feelings or help us avoid a minor embarrassment or problem.
Some lies are clearly told for financial or material gain. Remember the case of David Hampton, a young con artist who pretended to be film star Sidney Poitier’s son in the 1980s? He traded on the lie to cheat rich Manhattanites out of thousands of dollars. His deception inspired the play and movie Six Degrees of Separation. Despite being convicted and jailed, Hampton continued his career as a conman until his death in 2003. Although his lies ultimately did him no good, one can see what he hoped to gain by them.
There is another category of lying, however, that is less explicable. Compulsive liars tell lies which are:
sensational, easily found out,offer no apparent material advantage
I know two compulsive liars – fabulists who tell tall stories – and below I give examples of their extraordinary, rather fascinating lies.
Firstly though, a note on the pathology of lying. The DSM-IV – the Diagnostic Manual which describes mental illness – does not list chronic or compulsive lying as a mental disorder. Rather, such lying is seen as symptomatic of an existing mental illness such as narcissism, delusional thinking or psychopathy.
Sometimes, no underlying mental illness is diagnosed in compulsive liars. These cases raise the question of why an apparently otherwise well-adjusted person feels compelled to tell a series of often dramatic, often easily discovered lies.
Psychiatric opinion tends to believe that some chronic liars may have a neurological defect involving the frontal lobe of the brain. The defect may work in such a way that the individual, in telling a lie, is giving in to a compulsion to voice reality as he or she would like it to be. Healthy, well-adjusted people will tend to tell the truth about reality even if it’s not ideal. For example, you come home and announce you didn’t win the work contract even though you dearly wanted to. The fabulist, or compulsive liar, is more likely to say that not only did he win the contract but – guess what? – it’s going to be even more lucrative than he first thought!
Whatever neurological or psychological process may eventually explain compulsive lying, the social explanation seems to be that the fabulist desires to impress. Telling a tall tale gets everyone’s attention for the moment, even if the consequence later on is the embarrassment of being caught out. Compulsive liars may feel that they cannot live up to others’ expectations or that they are not interesting unless they weave dramatic lies.
I’ve encountered three fabulists in my time, the first very different from the second two. The first was a childhood friend who had a serious motorbike accident when he was 18. Christopher survived, but with serious physical handicap and very significant brain damage. One of the symptoms was that he seemed quite unable to distinguish between reality and fantasy. He would say he’d landed a great job as a chef or was being made an officer in the army. His accident and injured brain were responsible for the stories he told.
The two other fabulists are quite different. The first was a friend’s husband, Noel. When she first met him he told her his father was a British Lord. Mildly impressed, she asked how she should greet him. “Oh don’t ever mention it” Noel said. “He hates airs and graces and doesn’t like people to refer to his peerage.” For some time she believed the story – ridiculous as it was. The family lived in a small semi-detached house and Neil’s father was an engineer in a whisky distillery. She soon found out that her boyfriend told frequent lies. He said he was at university but she found out he was at a technical college. He then announced to some of her friends that I had a doctorate. I was studying for a Masters at the time, which is clearly not the same as having a doctorate. He told another women that his brother, an artist, had sold a huge painting to Madonna and made a fortune. And then that I and my boyfriend were off sailing a yacht round the Mediterranean when we’d just gone to Crete for a week.
His girlfriend challenged him about these lies – all of which he knew could be easily found out. His explanation was that he didn’t feel interesting enough and lied to create an impact. She loved him and consequently accepted the compulsive lying as part of his personality. Unfortunately in later years, during their marriage, the deception revolved around infidelity.
The third fabulist is a woman I met this year. Philippa is a vivacious, attractive and very intelligent woman in her 60s. It quickly became clear that she tells tall stories in much the same vein as Noel. As her lies are not the slightest bit credible it’s very intriguing. Does she expect her audience to challenge her? Is she laughing at people who let the lies go by? Is it a symptom of some disorder – or does she just have fun inventing preposterous lies?
The first rather dramatic story was that her mother was a body double for Marlene Dietrich in the movies. I accepted that, having no reason to doubt her. The second lie was that her son, in his 40s, was fathered by one of the debonair British actors who played James Bond. I was doubtful about that. At a subsequent lunch with friends she said mysteriously that she wasn’t completely sure he was the father. The other possibility was another equally well-known British film star. Hmmm. Really? She had perhaps forgotten telling me on yet another occasion that the father was the first boy she ever kissed and that he died recently. Both the British film stars are still alive!
Since then she’s announced that she’s a vegetarian but appeared to forget that when we went out for lunch and she ate lamb. She also announced that her mother was gorgeous and thin as a whippet but had three enormously obese sisters. Then she said that her mother was Hungarian and yet on another occasion she announced that her mother’s Scottish maiden name was the same as a well-known Scottish entertainer. She also announced that her surname is not her real surname. She changed her name by deed poll some years ago because she didn’t like her maiden or married name. How did you choose the name you assumed? I asked. “Oh, I threw a phone directory in the air. When it landed, I opened it and chose the first name I saw.”
It seems clear that the lies compulsive liars tell are told to impress their audience. They’re attention-seeking lies which, it is hoped, will exalt the teller directly or by association. Often, however, compulsive lying creates more problems than it solves and some compulsive liars do seek treatment.
Adam Szmerling is an Australian psychotherapist who treats compulsive lying. His counselling and psychotherapy techniques include: Buddhist Mindfulness therapy; attachment therapy; existential, psychoanalytic and psychodynamic therapy, dream work, NeuroLinguistic Programming (NLP) and hypnotherapy.
Szmerling explains that compulsive lying “often starts during childhood as a way of coping with difficult feelings of shame or anxiety. Many compulsive liars end up telling themselves lies too. In many cases, they believe deep down that their true self is ‘not good enough’ and that they are unlikely to be accepted by the people they value if they do not continue to tell lies. Over time, lying becomes an addictive habit that seems more comfortable and more normal than telling the truth.”
One area of research into compulsive lying that could be interesting is the impact of genetics and heredity. Noel’s wife had two children, a girl and a boy. She told me that by the time her son was six she was dismayed to find him telling the same sort of sensational, easily caught-out lies that his father tells.