Pathological lying, also known as compulsive lying or pseudologia fantastica, is a mental health condition where a person habitually lies for no personal gain. It was first recorded in 1891 by psychiatrist Anton Delbrück, who discussed cases of individuals telling outrageous lies to the extent that the behavior was considered pathological. These lies are told compulsively, often for no reason and sometimes even when the truth would work just as well.

Pathological lying is a real disorder. Some people are compulsive liars who can’t seem to stop, even when the lies are obvious or cause problems.

The Characteristics of Pathological Liars

Pathological liars lie frequently and habitually for a variety of reasons. The lies tend to be dramatic, implausible, and presented as truth. These individuals may even believe their own lies. Pathological liars have a difficult time maintaining relationships as their constant dishonesty damages trust.

Some common traits seen in pathological liars include:

  • Lying for no reason or for a very minor reason.
  • Changing details of stories or events.
  • Rarely admitting they’ve lied even when presented with facts.
  • Sometimes believing their own lies.
  • Needing to lie as a way to feel important or special.

How to Spot a Pathological Liar: Warning Signs and Red Flags

Their stories don’t add up.

Pathological liars have trouble keeping their lies straight. Pay close attention if their stories seem inconsistent or implausible. For example, they may tell you an elaborate story about their weekend that doesn’t match what they posted on social media. When called out on the inconsistency, they make up more lies to cover their tracks.

They lie for no reason.

We all tell little white lies occasionally, but pathological liars lie for no purpose. They lie about things that don’t even matter, often for no personal gain. For example, they may lie about what they had for lunch or what time they went to bed. These lies serve no purpose other than to deceive.

Their body language is off.

Liars often exhibit certain physical tics that give them away. Look for lack of eye contact, fidgeting, and nervous behavior. Of course, don’t assume someone is lying just based on body language alone. But combined with other warning signs, it can be revealing.

They never take responsibility.

Pathological liars blame others and make excuses rather than taking responsibility for their actions. They never sincerely apologize or make amends. It’s always someone else’s fault. They see themselves as the victim in every situation.

Their past is murky.

The life stories of pathological liars tend to be implausible and hard to verify. They may claim to have had experiences that seem unlikely given their age or background. When asked for details, their stories start to break down. The truth is often far less dramatic than the tales they weave.

The warning signs are there if you know what to look for. Be wary of anyone who exhibits multiple signs of pathological lying, and trust your instincts—you deserve honest, authentic relationships.

Causes and Risk Factors: Why Do People Become Compulsive Liars?

Many factors contribute to the development of pathological lying. Some of the most common causes and risk factors include:

Mental Health Conditions

Conditions like narcissistic personality disorder, antisocial personality disorder, and histrionic personality disorder are associated with frequent lying and manipulative behavior. Pathological liars may lie to get attention, exaggerate their achievements, or manipulate people for their own gain.

Childhood Trauma

Experiencing trauma, abuse, or neglect as a child can increase the risk of becoming a pathological liar. Lying at a young age may have been a coping or survival mechanism, and the behavior persists into adulthood. The lies often revolve around creating an idealized version of their childhood.

Low Self-Esteem

Compulsive liars may lie to make themselves seem more important or impressive due to underlying feelings of inadequacy or low self-worth. The lies are a way to gain admiration and boost their self-esteem. Of course, the lies ultimately damage relationships and cause further harm to their self-image.

Habitual Lying

For some pathological liars, lying becomes such an ingrained habit that they do it when there’s no clear purpose or benefit. They lie reflexively, even when the truth would have been just fine. Habitual lying often develops in childhood as a way to avoid punishment or get out of trouble. Without intervention, it becomes a lifelong habit.


Some studies suggest that genetics may play a role in the development of compulsive lying. Pathological lying appears to run in families, so certain people may be genetically predisposed to this condition. However, environment and upbringing also significantly influence a person’s likelihood to become a habitual liar. Genetics are not the only factor.


The Heritability of Moral Standards for Everyday Dishonesty is a “twins study” led by Peter J. Loewen of the University of Toronto revealed that attitudes about everyday dishonest behavior have a large genetic component.  According to the researchers, genes are responsible for 26% of their subjects’ views on avoiding taxes and 42% of their views on taking unnecessary sick leave. (Twins studies are based on the idea that genetic factors account for greater behavioral similarities between identical twins, who share a genetic code, than fraternal twins.)


In many cases, pathological lying arises from a combination of these causes and risk factors. The underlying reasons for the behavior can be complex, but with treatment like cognitive behavioral therapy, even long-time compulsive liars can learn to develop honesty and healthier relationships.

Getting Help for Pathological Lying: Treatment Options and Coping Strategies


The most effective treatment for pathological lying is therapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help the person identify situations that trigger the lying behavior and learn new coping strategies. Therapy may also help uncover the underlying causes of the lying, such as low self-esteem, anxiety, or a need for attention.


In some cases, medication may be used in combination with therapy. Antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications can help reduce symptoms that contribute to the lying. However, there are no medications specifically for treating pathological lying. Medication alone will not “cure” the underlying problem.

Develop honesty and accountability

Part of overcoming pathological lying is developing honesty and accountability. The person must make a conscious effort to stop the lying behavior and be truthful, even if it’s difficult. It’s also important to accept responsibility for the lies and make amends when possible. Friends and family can help by not enabling the lying and holding the person accountable in a compassionate way.

Address contributing factors

Underlying issues like low self-esteem, anxiety, or a desire for attention often contribute to pathological lying. The person must work to build confidence from real accomplishments, develop healthy social connections, and find fulfilling hobbies or activities. Learning stress management and coping techniques can also help reduce anxiety and the urge to lie.

Ongoing maintenance

Overcoming pathological lying is a lifelong effort that requires ongoing maintenance. Even after intensive treatment, there is a risk of relapse. Regular “check-ins” with a therapist, accountability to close ones, and practicing honesty and coping strategies can help maintain progress and prevent relapse. While pathological lying can be difficult to overcome, with time and effort, the honesty and trust in relationships can be rebuilt.


Pathological lying can be a confusing and frustrating issue to deal with, both for the liar and their loved ones. The good news is this behavior is treatable with counseling, medication, and a solid support system. It may take time and effort, but people can overcome a lying compulsion and build healthy relationships founded on honesty and trust. If you think you or someone you know may have this condition, reach out to us (561) 783-5507, we are here to help.