What Does It Mean To Be a Pathological Liar?

Although mental health professionals have not officially agreed on a definition for pathological lying, most would agree that this type of lying is a chronic (long-term) and excessive habit of lying. One study describes pathological lying as telling five or more lies over a period of 24 hours, every single day, for longer than six months.1

It’s worth noting that pathological lying is not recognized as a diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), so it’s challenging for healthcare providers to diagnose and better understand the habit.2 The research on pathological lying is limited, so experts don’t exactly know how common pathological lying really is. But, some researchers theorize that around 5% to 13% of people may be pathological liars.

What Is Pathological Lying?

Pathological lying (formally known as pseudologia fantastica) is a term that was coined by psychiatrist Anton Delbrueck in 1891. What he discovered was that pathological liars tell lies that are clearly extreme to outsiders, but were perceived by pathological liars themselves as within the realm of possibility. He also noted that their stories (or lies) were different from ordinary lying, false memory, or delusions.3

There is no “gold standard” definition for pathological lying. However, some research has noted a number of common characteristics that pathological liars may have, such as:3

  • Telling an overly excessive amount of lies, oftentimes for no reason
  • Lies that are dramatic, complicated, detailed, and sometimes even fantastical
  • Stories that they share with others tend to feature themselves as the hero or victim, as a way to achieve acceptance, admiration, or sympathy
  • Lying has caused dysfunction in their social relationships
  • Not being aware of how often they’re lying to the point they may have lost touch with reality

Types of Lying

Most people have told a lie at some point in their life. Sometimes, you might tell a white lie to spare someone’s feelings. Other times, you may tell a lie to prevent you from dealing with the consequences of sharing the truth.

In fact, research suggests that most people tell between zero and two lies per day on average. But, those who lie more frequently may tell anywhere from five to 20 lies a day. People who lie frequently often do so without reason. This habit becomes a way of life for them, paving their way to become pathological liars.2

But, there are several types of lying that you or someone you know might engage in. Research on lying has identified the following types of lying:3456

  • Self-serving lies: Lies you tell to avoid consequences
  • Altruistic lies: Lies that benefit or spare the feelings of another person
  • Vindictive lies: Lies that intentionally harm another person
  • Lies of omission: Lies that withhold parts of the truth
  • Prolific lies: Lies you tell for an opportunity or some type of benefit or gain
  • Compulsive lies: Lies that are similar to pathological lying, but are told out of fear or anxiety, rather than manipulation or deceit

How To Spot a Liar

You can often tell if you’re associating with a pathological liar based on how frequently they’re feeding you lies and if the lies seem dramatic or grandiose. However, some scientists also theorize that most people tend to show non-verbal signs of lying. These non-verbal cues may indicate that someone is lying:7

  • Avoiding looking at a person or making deliberate eye contact that lasts too long
  • Fidgeting or moving around
  • Displaying restless foot and leg movements
  • Making frequent body posture changes
  • Being vague and not answering questions directly
  • Playing with their hair or pressing their fingers to their lips
  • Sweating or having a flushed appearance on their skin

That said, it’s important to understand that each person may also display individualized signs to show that they’re lying. These signs may be influenced by genetics, cultural influences or behaviors, personal experiences, and situational factors.7

It’s not always easy to recognize if someone is lying to you. In addition to trying to detect if someone is lying to you by their non-verbal actions, listen to what they are saying. Usually, there will be inconsistencies in their stories or things that seem completely unbelievable. Their stories may even conflict with factual information.2

If you don’t know for sure if someone is lying to you, but you suspect they might be, do a little research. Ask third parties or look up the information online. You could even keep notes of your conversations and compare the stories later if you think someone is trying to manipulate or control you with their lies.2

Why Are Some People Pathological Liars?

There has been very little research on what causes pathological lying. Some experts theorize that pathological lying may be a result of trauma or low self-esteem, while other scientists consider it a symptom of mental health or neurological (brain-related) condition. A few researchers also speculate that this type of lying may just be a habit that has turned into a way of life for someone.

There is some evidence that lying is a self-perpetuating cycle. In one study, researchers examined the brains of their participants to determine what happens when someone tells a lie. What they discovered is that the more a person lies, the easier it becomes for them to tell a lie. They also noted that self-interest seemed to fuel the dishonesty. Though this study did not specifically address pathological lying, it does provide some insight into how easy it is for the pattern to form.8

There also may be a connection between pathological lying and certain conditions. For instance, people with a factitious disorder or Munchausen syndrome may pathologically lie about being sick.9 On the other hand, people with antisocial personality disorder may lie for status or sympathy while people with narcissistic personality disorder may lie to boost their image.10

How Pathological Lying Can Affect Relationships

Being the relative, friend, or romantic partner of a pathological liar can be overwhelming and confusing. You may even feel like they are gaslighting you at times. In your gut, you might know that what they are saying is probably not true, but you may be having trouble proving it and your relationship could be suffering because of it. This is difficult to deal with and it’s important to validate these feelings.

Research can back up how you’re feeling. In fact, one study found that pathological lying severely damages relationships. The researchers noted that this was not surprising given that deception and lies often damage trust. They also found that pathological lies can create a great deal of conflict in the relationship, leading to distress for both the person who is lying and the person on the receiving end of the lie.1

How to Cope With a Pathological Liar

Relationships with pathological liars can be challenging, draining, and upsetting. For this reason, it is important that you have some coping strategies in your toolbox. Here are some things you can do to cope with a pathological liar:

  • Believe in yourself and trust your reality: Being in a relationship with a pathological liar can sometimes feel like you’re constantly being gaslit. You may know what the truth is, but they are very convincing that you’re false. It may be helpful to check in with others to confirm what is fact and what is fiction if you need to.
  • Set boundaries with the person: Determine what you are willing to tolerate in the relationship and what is a dealbreaker for you. Then, communicate those boundaries to the person who engages in pathological lying. It’s also vital to explain what steps you will take if those boundaries are violated. Consider getting a mental health professional to help you set boundaries and hold you accountable.
  • Encourage them to talk with a professional: Unfortunately, you alone cannot fix the pathological liar in your life, nor is it your responsibility. Instead, advise them to speak to a mental health professional about their habitual lying so that they can take steps to change their behavior and learn healthier ways of communicating.
  • Consider ending the relationship: Dealing with ongoing lying can be draining both mentally and physically. Keep in mind: you have an obligation to take care of yourself. If your relationship with the person who pathologically lies is starting to negatively affect you, it may be time to move on, especially if they are unwilling to get help.
  • Be kind to yourself: It’s often hard to navigate a relationship with a pathological liar or end it altogether. For this reason, it is important to be kind to yourself as you decide what’s best for you. Engage in mindfulness, self-care, journaling, or anything that with help put your situation in perspective.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Because pathological lying is not part of the DSM-5 and is not considered an official condition, there is no diagnosis (or treatment plan) for this habit. It’s worth noting that some mental health professionals believe that pathological lying needs to be included in the DSM-5 and discussions around this subject are ongoing. Meanwhile, other experts believe pathological lying is a symptom of other conditions like factitious disorder or various personality disorders.11

Some researchers have asked mental health professionals what their preferred method of treatment for pathological lying would be. In one study, some psychotherapists believed that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) was the best approach, while others suggested dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT). Other recommendations included behavior therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy, emotion-focused therapy, and motivational interviewing.11

Unfortunately, most people who lie pathologically don’t often seek mental health support for their habit. In the case where someone does receive care from a mental health professional, their exact treatment plan will depend on the individual needs of the person.

A Quick Review

Although there is no accepted definition of pathological lying, most mental health professionals see this habit as the chronic telling of dramatic or excessive lies—oftentimes for no apparent reason. Most people who engage in pathological lying believe the stories they are telling and sometimes paint themselves as a hero or victim.

Being a pathological liar can make it very difficult to have lasting relationships with others. If you or someone you know engages in pathological lying, it can help to see a mental health professional for support. They can evaluate the symptoms and put together a treatment plan to improve your quality of life and your relationships.


  1. Curtis DA, Hart CL. Pathological lying: Theoretical and empirical support for a diagnostic entity. Psychiatr res clin pract. 2020;2(2):62-69. doi:10.1176/appi.prcp.20190046
  2. American Psychological Association. Speaking of psychology: Can a pathological liar be cured? With Drew Curtis, PhD, and Christian L. Hart, PhD.
  3. Thom R, Teslyar P, Friedman R. Pseudologia fantastica in the emergency department: A case report and review of the literature. Case Reports in Psychiatry. 2017;2017:1-5. doi:10.1155/2017/8961256
  4. Verigin BL, Meijer EH, Bogaard G, Vrij A. Lie prevalence, lie characteristics and strategies of self-reported good liars. PLoS One. 2019;14(12):e0225566. Published 2019 Dec 3. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0225566
  5. Palena N, Caso L, Cavagnis L, Greco A. Profiling the interrogee: Applying the person-centered approach in investigative interviewing research. Front Psychol. 2021;12:722893. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2021.722893
  6. Markowitz DM, Hancock JT, Woodworth MT, Ely M. Contextual considerations for deception production and detection in forensic interviews. Front Psychol. 2023;14:1134052. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2023.1134052
  7. Brennen T, Magnussen S. Research on non-verbal signs of lies and deceit: A blind alley. Front Psychol. 2020;11:613410. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2020.613410
  8. Garrett N, Lazzaro SC, Ariely D, Sharot T. The brain adapts to dishonesty. Nat Neurosci. 2016;19(12):1727-1732. doi:10.1038/nn.4426
  9. Carnahan KT, Jha A. Factitious disorder. In: StatPearls. StatPearls Publishing; 2023.
  10. Grant JE, Paglia HA, Chamberlain SR. The phenomenology of lying in young adults and relationships with personality and cognition. Psychiatr Q. 2019;90(2):361-369. doi:10.1007/s11126-018-9623-2
  11. Curtis DA, Hart CL. Pathological lying: Psychotherapists’ experiences and ability to diagnose. The American Journal of Psychotherapy. 2022;75(2):61-66. doi:10.1176/appi.psychotherapy.20210006

Important Notice: This article was originally published at www.health.com  by Sherri Gordon where all credits are due. Medically reviewed by Elle Markman, PsyD.


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