There are a thousand and one reasons to lie. There are those who tell “white lies” to “protect” the other from a harsh truth and there are those who lie to avoid the consequences of their behavior. But there are also people who lie unnecessarily, at least apparently.
Talking to them is often like walking on quicksand because we never know when they are telling the truth or when they are lying. However, understanding why a person is unnecessarily lying is the first step in moving the conversation into the realm of truth.
The 3 most common reasons why people lie
Pathological lying is not a recent phenomenon. In the early 20th century, psychiatrist William Healy wrote of a young patient: “Throughout our relationship with Adolf we have known that his word is not to be trusted. Many times he has told his friends quite unnecessary lies, which has done nothing but affect their opinion of him. The repeated inventions of him have had no provable purpose.”
Lying unnecessarily is still a relatively widespread habit. A study conducted at the University of Texas, for example, revealed that more than 91% of the 251 people interviewed indicated that they knew a pathological liar. Those people believed that approximately 49% of lies had no apparent motive or reason.
However, it is important to note that our inability to find reasons for a lie does not necessarily mean that the liar has no “reasons” for his dishonesty. The fact that we do not find a rational meaning to the lie does not imply the absence of motivations. To understand why a person lies “unnecessarily”, it is essential to put yourself in their shoes.
1. Get attention to feel important
We all need a certain degree of attention, validation, and social approval, but some people try to satisfy those needs in unnatural ways, resorting to lies. In fact, pathological liars often lie to get attention.
If they don’t get the amount of attention they want, they often resort to exaggeration or even fabrication to impress the others. In many cases, these people are presented as heroes of situations, intrepid adventurers or even as poor victims. To give strength to their character, they usually build stories that border on the fantastic but that they season with more convincing details in order to attract attention and be perceived as more important.
These are usually people who are worried about losing the respect or admiration of those around them. In fact, many of the people who lie really just want to please, impress and be positively valued. Instead, they worry that telling the truth will alienate or disappoint others.
2. Reinforce fragile self-esteem
Decades ago, psychiatrist Charles Ford argued that when people experience an excessive need to improve their self-esteem, they can resort to lying, even reaching pathological states.
In practice, even though everyone around him thinks it is an inconsequential issue, the liar is convinced that it is a critical issue. He has a distorted vision, which leads him to emphasize certain situations in order to gain relevance in the eyes of the others and artificially increase his self-esteem.
In fact, it has been found that most people who lie unnecessarily make lies about themselves. This indicates that the content of these lies is a way of personal reaffirmation, to shore up a fragile self-esteem.
3. Confuse the lie with the truth
In the mind of the person who lies unnecessarily, the borders between reality and fantasy are not very well defined. In fact, our memories in a general sense are usually not very reliable. Our memory is subject to the influence of many factors, so it is not uncommon for us to suffer from some form of dysmnesia; that is, that our memories change over time since they are reconstructed every time we recall them.
These subtle distinctions between what happened and the reinterpretations that we make of the facts can lead a person to tell things that are not true, but that in his imagination they were or at least he wishes they were. These people tend to continually reshape their past, so their versions of what happened are constantly changing as they add details that never happened.
Sometimes, this tendency can become so intense that it almost seems that the person has recreated a parallel world in his head, a changing past that adapts to his current needs and beliefs.
How to deal with a person who lies unnecessarily?
Obviously, dealing with a person who lies unnecessarily – at least from our point of view – is often frustrating. However, it is worth analyzing their behavior from the tripartite theory of dishonesty.
According to this theory, people lie when they expect that lies bring them some value, they think that the chances of others noticing it are slim, and they assume that the costs of lying, both socially and internally in terms of guilt or embarrassment, are low or tolerable.
That means that, although it seems to us that a person lies unnecessarily, in reality there is a reason that we cannot see. Therefore, if we want to understand him, we should ask ourselves why this lie is important to him, why he needs it or what he wants to gain.
People do not usually lie unnecessarily, what happens is that many times we find their reasons absurd. If we want to establish a relationship based on honesty, instead of pointing out their lies and making them feel cornered, we could ask them: Why is that important to you?
Communicating empathy can help that person lower his defenses and understand that he can tell the truth because he is not at risk of being judged or rejected.
Hart, C. L. & Beach, R. (2022) Have You Ever Met a Pathological Liar? In: Psychology Today.
Ford, C. V. (1996) Lies! lies!! lies!!!: the psychology of deceit. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Press.
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