Psychopaths and Pathological Lying: Why Do Psychopaths Lie?

Psychopaths lie pathologically to others about pretty much everything:  their past, their present and their future. Whatever lies you discover about the psychopath in your life are likely to be just the tip of the iceberg. Be prepared for the sinking of the Titanic. He could be telling you, or his family, that he has one kind of job while having another kind or being unemployed. He could be saying that he’s rich while being dirt poor. He could be preaching trust and fidelity to you while pursuing dozens of other women. He could be telling you that his partner is cold, frigid and uninterested in working on their relationship when he’s the one who neglects her, plays hot-cold games to manipulate her and does everything possible to violate her trust and undermine her confidence and well-being. He could be telling you that he’s looking for a job in your area, to be together, while leaving his options open and seeking employment all over the country, to separate you from your family and friends. He could be saying that he had no affairs while playing semantic games, since in his mind, all those other women were only friends with benefits. He could be telling you his ex cheated on him or left him, when he’s the one who cheated on every woman he’s ever been with, not just once, but innumerable times, and broke up with them after having used them. More ominously, he could be presenting himself as a decent person while secretly committing fraud, serial rape or even murder. What you don’t know about him, along with the false information he offers you, can and will hurt you. He’s got no friends, just people he uses and alibis for his lies. Lying feeds his underlying narcissism. Distorting other people’s perception of reality gives him the false sense of being smarter than them.

Since psychopaths wallow in seediness, cruelty and perversion, they enjoy not only lying, but also waving their lies under the noses of the people they dupe. They leave little trophies of their infidelities lying around, like a shampoo bottle or trinkets from their girlfriends. When they’re questioned about them by their partner, they get the additional thrill of offering a false explanation. You’ve no doubt heard of psychopathic serial killers who take objects from their victims, such as a bracelet, ring or a lock of hair, as “trophies,” to remind them of their criminal exploits. Signs of betrayal represent the sex addict’s little trophies. Such disordered individuals also enjoy living on the edge. Just as serial killers often play cat and mouse games with the media and the police, so philandering psychopaths play games of catch-me-if-you-can with their spouses and girlfriends. They may be sitting across from their wife on the computer and sending sexually explicit messages to a girlfriend, while claiming to be doing work or looking up some innocuous information. They may be in a hotel with a girlfriend while having a lengthy phone conversation with their wife. They may take a call from one girlfriend while being on a date with another and telling her that it’s a business call.

Psychopaths enjoy lying both because of the power it gives them over others and because of the risk of getting caught. The problem remains, of course, that the risk is always minimal and therefore never quite thrilling enough. To take a real risk in life, one has to value something or someone, so that one fears losing that thing or that person. Psychopaths can’t value anything but their immediate appetites and anyone but themselves. If they lose their jobs, there’s always another one just as good (even when there isn’t). If they lose their money, they can always mooch off or scam someone else. If they alienate their partner, there’s lots of other fish in the sea. Since the stakes are always so low for psychopaths, their thrills are also very fleeting.

Lying makes them feel more powerful and superior to others. Needless to say, in reality, engaging in deception and manipulation are not a sign of excess of intelligence. They’re a symptom of lack of character. Psychopathic dictators such as Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Ceausescu weren’t particularly bright individuals. They were just particularly manipulative, opportunistic and ruthless. But it’s no use trying to persuade a psychopath that he’s much less, rather than more, than the people he dupes. Once you see through his lack of character, his reactions also become transparent. When he gets away a lie, he feels a cheap thrill.  When caught in a lie, he feels no shame. He simply covers it up with another lie or, when that’s not an option, blames you for his wrongdoing or accuses you of behaving in the same manner. Often, even when psychopaths believe that they’re telling the truth, they’re in fact lying. A psychopath can “sincerely” state that he’s being faithful to you right before his date with another woman. Psychopaths live in an Orwellian doublethink world. They believe the truth of the moment while actively seeking new opportunities. We might as well call it a “psychopath-think,” since such individuals have their own language.

For example, to a psychopathic seducer, “I love you” means “You give me a rush at this moment.” “You love me” translates as “you forgo your needs to bend to my will.” “Trust me” means “What a sucker!” “You’re the woman of my life,” translates into “You’re one of a long, indefinite sequence of women that’s also simultaneous” (Psychopaths have their own version of math as well). “Mutual fidelity” means “you need to be faithful to me while I cheat on you.” “Betrayal” means “You dared disapprove of something I did” or “You disobeyed me in some respect.” “Mutual commitment” translates into “You need to revolve everything in your life only around me while I do exactly what I want.” “Honesty” means “My truth,” or “Saying whatever gets me what I want at the moment.” “I miss you” means “I miss the function you played in my life because I’m a little bored right now.” “What my Baby wants, my Baby gets” means “I’ll give you attention, flattery and gifts only until I hook you emotionally and gain your trust. Afterwards, Mazeltov Baby! You’re on your own.” “I cheat because my wife/girlfriend doesn’t satisfy me” means “…and neither will you, in a few months, at most.” “We belong together” means “I own you completely while I remain free.” “If anything happens between us, it won’t be because of me” means “Nothing’s ever my fault. If I do something harmful, it’s because you (and others) weren’t good enough for me.” Unless you learn to decipher the psychopathic code, you’re likely to be “lost in translation.” If I put my mind to it, I could write a whole dictionary of “psychopath-speak” and its translation into regular human language.

Every so-called “truth” psychopaths utter is momentary and contingent upon their immediate gratification. Since their feelings are shallow, so is their truth-value. If you add “for now” to their declarations of love, they may sometimes ring plausible. For instance, during the euphoric seduction phase, psychopaths may believe when they tell a girlfriend that they love her and want to spend the rest of their life with her. But their passion isn’t grounded in any empathy, love or commitment. Since the euphoric state of “being in love” comes and goes even during the course of a single day, so does the truth-value of their statement. One minute they might tell a girlfriend with genuine emotion that they love her and will always be faithful to her. The next hour they might be pursuing another woman, just for the heck of it, because they’re bored. While psychopaths scheme and manipulate a lot, they’re short-term, or tactical, schemers. They can’t see more than two steps ahead of their noses, to chase the next temporary pleasure. Tactics, or short-term maneuvers, prove to be far less effective than strategy, or long-term planning, however. Over the long-term, the lives of psychopaths usually unravel in a sequence of failed careers, sordid crimes and disastrous relationships. While this fact doesn’t particularly bother the psychopaths themselves, who live by a Dionysian hedonism, it bothers quite a lot everyone who comes into close contact with them.

To explain further why and how psychopaths lie so glibly and compulsively, I’ll rely upon Dr. Susan Forward‘s When your lover is a liar. Her book addresses all kinds of liars. However, she devotes one chapter in particular to psychopaths. She describes this group as the most dangerous and predatory kind of liars. She also confirms that they’re the only ones who are completely unchangeable.  Psychopaths tell harmful lies, not mere white lies.  The lies that harm us, either by omission or by commission, involve the intent to deceive. Forward defines a harmful lie as a “deliberate and conscious behavior that either misrepresents important facts or conceals and withholds them in order to keep you from knowing the truth about certain facets of your partner’s past, present, and, often, future.” (When your lover is a liar, 6) She goes on to explain that when a man lies about important matters related to his identity, actions and intentions, certain implications follow: 1) he becomes the sole proprietor of the truth; 2) he acquires control over events in his partner’s life; 3) those he dupes lack important information that can drastically influence their lives; 4) consequently, those he dupes can’t make major life decisions based on this information, including whether or not to stay with him, and 5) most importantly, those he dupes don’t know who he really is. (16)

Psychopaths typically deny or minimize their deception once it’s discovered. This strategy, Forward maintains, constitutes a power game which has several negative implications for the person being duped: 1) she didn’t see what she saw; 2) she didn’t hear what she heard; 3) she doesn’t know what she found out; 4) she’s exaggerating, imagining things or being paranoid; 5) in holding the liar accountable for his deception, she’s the one creating problems in their relationship; 6) she’s to blame for the deception or her partner’s misbehavior; 7) other people, who are exposing the psychopath’s lies, are creating trouble in their relationship. (When your lover is a liar, 16) These techniques of denying and compounding the lies relate to “gaslighting.” They lead the victim to feel like she’s “going crazy” and imagining things that don’t exist or aren’t true. Gaslighting turns reality topsy-turvy. It replaces truth with falsehood. It also shifts the balance of power between the honest person and the liar. The liar takes charge of the relationship and of his honest partner’s perception of reality.

Given that, as we’ve seen so far, harmful lies constitute a power game, it’s not that surprising that psychopaths, who live to dominate and manipulate others, end up being the most irredeemable pathological liars of the human species. As mentioned, Forward devotes an entire chapter to psychopathic liars. By way of contrast to the rest of her book, which focuses on how to improve relationships tainted by deception, in this case she advises people to leave their psychopathic partners for good. She states,

“This chapter is about scorpions in human form, and continuous, remorseless lying is what they do. They lie to the women they’re with, and to just about everyone else. They cheat repeatedly on the women they’re married to, they steal from the woman they profess their love for. Their greatest thrill, their greatest high, is pulling the wool over the eyes of the women who love and trust them, and they do it without a moment of concern for their targets. This chapter is about the one kind of liar you must leave immediately. It is about sociopaths.” (When your lover is a liar, 66)

Forward goes on to explain that since psychopaths regard life as a power game, they suffer from an incurable addiction to deception as a way of life. All the experts on psychopathy and sociopathy state that such individuals lie even when the truth would make them look better or would sound more plausible.  In addition, unlike normal human beings, psychopaths don’t change their deceitful ways. The simple and short explanation for why not is that they don’t want to change and aren’t even capable of changing. As we’ve seen, psychopaths lack the emotional and moral incentives that motivate normal people to improve themselves. No matter how much suffering they cause others and no matter how much they, themselves, get into trouble as a result of their lies, psychopaths remain pathological liars and frauds throughout their lives.

Forward breaks down the main reasons why psychopaths don’t change their fraudulent ways1) they don’t experience the pain and shame that motivates people to become honest; 2) they don’t play by the rules and thus they never feel that they’ve done something wrong; 3) they lack the emotional depth to want to improve their character; 4) in their relentless search for excitement, they live to break, not follow, moral and social rules; 5) they believe that they’re superior to those they dupe. (When your lover is a liar, 71) I would add one more related point to this list: 6) they believe that the rest of humanity is just like them, i.e., manipulative and deceitful, only less intelligent or less adept at it than they are. Forward concludes that if anybody tells you a psychopath can become an honest, loyal and faithful individual, they’re lying to you. Which is also why the person most likely to tell someone such a lie is the psychopath himself: especially if he still has something to gain from his target.

For a fictionalized representation of a psychopathic social predator, check out my new novel, The Seducer, previewed on the links below:


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