Psychopaths as Compulsive Liars
What relationship do psychopaths have with truth and lies in their relationships with others. Do they have a penchant for lying and if so what is the motive for their behaviour?
In short, psychopaths tend to be relentless and compulsive liars. Many of them will constantly and repreatedly lie and do so very convincingly. Sometimes they may do this as a means to an end but over time one will come to see that many psychopaths appear to lie just for the sake of lying. This is yet another bizarre aspect of psychopathic behaviour which we will explore more in this article.
Psychopaths as People of The Lie
Some of the most quotable observations on psychopaths and evil people in general were given by M Scott Peck in his excellent book People of the Lie, available on Amazon. As a practicing psychiatrist for many years he saw all kinds of people, but a few of them he characterized as “malignant” or evil – pretty much an equivalent term for psychopath.
He noticed several key traits in what he called evil people, but the most conspicuous one was a compulsive and constant tendency to lie about all manner of things large and small. It is from this tendency that he came up with the phrase “People of the Lie”. Here is an excellent quote taken from the book where he describes this tendency in a couple he saw, Mr and Mrs R:
If the reader reviewed my account of the interactions that Mr and Mrs R had with me, she or he would find somewhere between one and two dozen lies. Here again we see this striking consistency. It is not a matter of one lie or two. Roger’s parents lied to me repeatedly and routinely. They were people of the lie. The lies were not gross. There was not one they could have been taken to court on. Yet the process was pervasive. Indeed, even their coming to see me at all was a lie (People of the Lie, p. 118)
Here we see a brilliant account of something so many victims of psychopaths will confirm – they constantly and compulsively lie every single day in their interactions with others. They tell lies that have consequences but even meaningless lies that don’t. They appear to enjoy lying just for the sake of lying.
Of course they tell large lies as well that do have consequences down the line. They will lie about their past, lie on their CV, lie about where they have been, lie about their motives, lie when they tell you they have paid this or that bill and so on. These kind of lies usually catch up with them as people start to cross reference and put two and two together, at which point they normally realize the game is up and move onto someone else.
However, it is the small everyday lies that most people will find bizarre. They will lie when they don’t even need to lie, when telling the truth would cost nothing and have no bad consequences. As Anthony Johnson mentions in his presentation psychopathy, it is as though lying is their main default cognitive mode of thought. They are hard wired to lie as apposed to normal people who default to telling the truth.
“If a psychopath’s lips are moving, they’re lying…..Their main mode of thought cognitively is lying”
Brazenness And Outrageousness
One explanation for their compulsive lying is it is a part of their more general tendency towards brazen and ever more outrageous behaviour over time. Studies on psychopaths have show they do not show the same kind of brain activity as normal humans do in certain scenarios.
They do not appear to process emotions in the same way others do, but also they don’t have the same physiological responses to stressful, emotive or other stimuli that most people do. And most importantly, many of them do not give off the same physiological clues when they tell lies.
For most of us telling a lie about something goes against our value systems and so triggers certain physical cues, such as increased heart rate, sweating and so on. Psychopaths do not have these same reactions and so can lie far more convincingly without giving anything away emotionally or physically.
In fact for this reason Polygraphs or lie detector tests have been argued to be useless for psychopaths because they can easily beat them. They can lie, and do so repeatedly and outrageously, without any detectable physiological response, the story goes. The article linked above actually questions this conclusion and makes for interesting reading.
However anyone who has had to deal with a psychopath in their daily lives knows that the lying is incessant and relentless and never stops. Because it comes so naturally to them they seem to be able to lie indefinitely into the future, stringing lies around more lies and “spinning plates” of different false narratives they have told different people.
Normal people would just get quickly exhausted by the constant mental pretense this all involves but is seems psychopaths see it as their mission in life to lie constantly about everything, even when telling the truth is easier! As the saying goes, they would “rather climb a tree and tell a lie than stay on the ground and tell the truth”.
Spotting These Behaviour Patterns
Spotting this kind of behaviour as with character judgement in general just involves being observant and watching out for and following up on glaring contradictions about accounts of events or a person’s history or anything else.
In fairness we should also emphasize that almost all of us do tell lies at some point as it is just part of human nature and everyday life at certain points that we do feel the need to lie as it just seems easier or expedient in the moment. Just because someone tells a lie it does not mean they are a toxic or evil person.
There may in fact be some good reasons for lying, like concealing a birthday present or other surprise, or feigning ignorance about something may be part of everyday playful banter and ribbing. Context is everything of course and no one can claim to be perfect in never having lied, even about some big things every now and then.
Similarly not all people who have a habit of lying are evil. Some may do it out of conflict avoidance as telling the truth may lead to uncomfortable arguments in some cases. Normal people often give themselves away when lying but psychopaths can lie brazenly and openly, looking you in the eye and telling you a complete lie without flinching or breaking a sweat.
With psychopaths you are looking not for minor aberrations and dishonesty every now and then but constant and incessant lying and distortion of truth and facts on a daily or almost daily basis. This lying often also gets more outrageous over time and is totally different to lies all of us occasionally tell as imperfect human beings.
They will tell lies to manipulate and deceive, lies to cover up undesirable actions or whereabout, lies about their past and their partners, and lies about little daily things that don’t even mean anything. Here are some red flags to watch out for:
- You ask them the same question about their past two or three times and get a different answer each time.
- Look for a pattern of regular or increasing lying and deception. Everyone is prone to lying occasionally but the frequency and scale of lying will stand out with psychopaths.
- They talk about grandiose achievements in their past with no witnesses around to back their stories up.
- They talk about people from their past, particularly ex partners, in constantly negative terms, comparing you favorably to them. Again none of these people are around the speak for themselves.
- Different things they are telling you about their past aren’t “squaring up” or making sense. Something doesn’t seem right about the picture they are painting of their past. Again trust your intuiton on this.
- They quickly gloss over or change the subject about a specific area of their life or history.
- Watch for their response when actual or potential dishonesty is confronted or exposed. Blame shifting, projection and unreasonable denial are red flags.
- Gas-lighting – where they repeatedly try and deny your perception of reality and turn things on their head – is a huge red flag. If you find yourself exposing lies but leaving conversations feeling like you are the one in the wrong then you are likely dealing with a psychopath.
- They have a tendency for confusing answers or “word salad” nonsense when confronted on certain things.
- In some cases a person from their past shows up and pours cold water over some of the claims they have been making and stories they have been telling. “What?!”, they’ll exclaim as you mention the multi-million dollar business they said they were running in Florida 5 years ago and sold for a small fortune.