The Difference Between Pathological and Compulsive Lying (and Why It Matters)

The Difference Between Pathological and Compulsive Lying (and Why It Matters)

Generally speaking, lying isn’t a trait that’s viewed as something positive. But not all lies are created equal. There’s a pretty broad spectrum of untruths, ranging from minor lies that don’t cause any harm, to major, massive lies that can do serious damage.

And when a person tends to lie frequently, the terms “pathological” and “compulsive” are thrown around a lot. But they’re not the same thing. In an interview with Well+Good, clinical psychologist Dr. Ramani Durvasula breaks down the difference between compulsive and pathological lying. Here’s what to know.

The difference between pathological and compulsive lying

Both pathological and compulsive lying are done out of habit, making it difficult to determine whether anything a person says is truly accurate, or involves some degree of a lie (or withholding information). Additionally, Durvasula says that both types of lying are usually defence or coping mechanisms a person develops during early childhood as a response to trauma.

But beyond that, there are key differences between pathological and compulsive lying. Here’s how Durvasula breaks it down:

Pathological lying

  • The lying involves manipulation, with the goal of the person avoiding blame, getting out of trouble, saving face, or getting their way in a situation.
  • It frequently involves more than a single lie — specifically, an “elaborate webs of lies in order to achieve some personal gain,” that usually “comes at the direct expense of others,” Durvasula says.
  • The person lying may lack empathy or awareness (or both) of how their behaviour impacts others.
  • It “tends to coexist with a narcissistic streak or narcissistic personality disorder,” Durvasula says — though that’s not always the case.

Compulsive lying

  • It occurs purely out of habit, often for little to no tangible reason.
  • It typically has no (if any) consequences.
  • It feels comfortable/familiar to a person.
  • “The compulsive liar will typically lie in low- or no-stakes situations, perhaps saying they went to a certain vacation spot when they didn’t, or lying about what they watched on TV the night before,” Durvasula explains.

Why it matters

According to Durvasula, it’s not only frequency that matters when it comes to pathological and compulsive lying, but also the type of lie and the person’s intent. “It’s when those little lies become the norm and are also interspersed with more nefarious capital-L lies that the issue veers more distinctly toward deceit and distrust,” she says.

Once your trust in someone starts to wane, you may need to rethink your relationship with them — regardless whether they’re a colleague, romantic partner, family member, platonic friend, or something else. “If you’re dealing with any high-stakes information that you need to be sure is accurate, make sure to get confirmation of that intel from someone else,” Durvasula advises.

Finally, if you catch a person in a lie, Durvasula says that confronting them about it should be avoided — especially if their lying tends to be pathological. This is because there’s a good chance that calling them out will cause the person to get defensive and/or deny everything, and as she points out, your time and energy are better spent getting the facts somewhere else.

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