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Causes of a Compulsive Liar

author image Mary Garrett
Mary Garrett is a certified health education specialist and American Council on Exercise-certified lifestyle/weight management coach. She holds a Bachelor of Science in health promotion from the University of North Carolina at Pembroke and is completing a Master of Arts in counseling at Saint Martin's University.
Causes of a Compulsive Liar
A view of someone peering in on a frustrated teenager in his room. Photo Credit: monkeybusinessimages/iStock/Getty Images

American culture’s awareness of lying exists in films, music and everyday life. Newspapers report almost daily on issues involving lying in politics, economics and business. Everyone is familiar with a little white lie, such as complimenting a meal not really enjoyed. Yet compulsive lying is not well understood in society. This condition can evolve from many different situations.

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In a 1988 paper, still valid with researchers today, on compulsive lying in the "American Journal of Psychiatry," Charles Ford, M.D., Bryan King, M.D., and Marc Hollender, M.D., discuss the phenomenon in detail. They cite the definition of a pathological liar as someone who displays a variety of “symptoms caused by a disease of the total personality…[with] a tendency to tell untruths about matters which perhaps could be easily verified and which untruths may serve no obvious purpose either in the personality of the individual or in the situation which he finds himself.”

Developmental Significance

According to Dr. Ford and colleagues, lying is an important part of the development of autonomy and separation of young children from their parents. They discover their own thinking patterns as separate from their parents. As teens explore their development into adulthood, regression can occur due to a fear of the eminent separation from their parents and lying may help teens facilitate the means to let go They often see their parents as the enemy. Individuals, for whom control and autonomy are overwhelmingly desirable, may lie to maintain their independence.

Social Environment

Social environments can play a significant role in the development of pathological lying. Ford and his colleagues say that how parents respond to a child’s lying could either encourage or discourage lying. If the lies are addressed in a positive corrective nature as opposed to sever punishment, the “patterns thus established may persist throughout life.” The child’s exposure to other people's lies are equally significant. Promises not kept, lies told to the child, household secrets and hypocrisy can cause the child to develop a compulsion to lie.

Traumatic Events

Emotionally or physically abusive home situations can induce lying. Some children, notes Ford, may use lying as a defense mechanism for dealing with traumatic events. This could be a way of assimilating information that would otherwise be painful, to alter the awareness of what really happened. Many of these lies once believed by others may even become “true” to the liar.


The prospect of power can make individuals resort to extremes. These people may resort to lying to maintain power or control over others. When they lose power, they may resort to more lying. When they gain power and success from lying, it is thus reinforced. The lie becomes a useful tool for this person in denigrating others to boost their own reputation. Some people may lie compulsively as an attempt to support their self-esteem. They may create realities to feel better about themselves or create a successful image for others.

Personality Disorders

People with personality disorders may lie compulsively. A personality disorder is a mental illness consisting of difficulty relating to others and erroneous perceptions of social situations and environments. To them, their thinking patterns seem natural and they often blame others when conflict arises. Especially prone to compulsive lying are people with antisocial personality disorder. According to, people with this disorder have “no regard for right and wrong.” This individual may have repetitive altercations with the police, drug or alcohol abuse problems, or difficulty with their social lives. Additional characteristics of this disorder include impulsivity, intimidation, manipulation, abusive behavior and lack of remorse or regret. Other personality disorders that can consist of persistent lying include histrionic, narcissistic, borderline and compulsive.

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