Habitual Liars: What Makes a Person Lie Constantly?

Reader’s Question

I have a friend who is a constant liar. It is to the point that I don’t believe anything she says anymore. I am pretty sure she knows she is doing it because once or twice recently, her 13-year-old called her on it, and she screamed at him that he didn’t know what she said and to butt-out of her business.

What causes a person to lie repeatedly? Can such a person ever change? I feel pretty certain if anyone ever called her on her behavior she would act outraged and simply put an end to the relationship.

Psychologist’s Reply

I have written a past post on this topic (see Will My Compulsive Lying Ruin My Relationship?), have much to say about it in my book In Sheep’s Clothing [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK], and will have a lot more to say about it in my soon to be released book Character Disturbance [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK].

Certain persons have been described as “pathological liars” not only because they lie so frequently but because they appear to lie even in circumstances where there appears no practical cause to do so. The label “compulsive” liar has also been given to those who don’t seem to be able to refrain from truth distortions in their relationships. “Habitual” is probably the most accurate word to describe seemingly endless liars, and as we all know, once bad habits become ingrained, they’re hard to break.

Research on lying clearly indicates that on a purely psychological level, people lie for two main reasons: to avoid the unpleasant or to get something positive they want that they think they wouldn’t get if they were to ask for it in a straightforward fashion (such is the case with manipulative behavior). In my experience, however, I have also known people who persistently lie because they find an embellished or distorted story infinitely more stimulating or “titillating” than the unvarnished truth. So, basically, they lie because they find it pleasurable.

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If you want to have a chance at “shaping” or changing your friend’s behavior, try reinforcing her or giving her positive feedback for those times when she hasn’t so egregiously peddled falsehoods. Let her know how positive and stimulating you find your relationship with her to be when she’s not engaged in telling tall tales but has been more genuine and open with you. It may take some time, but it’s the only shot you have at encouraging her to abandon this bad habit.

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