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Habitual lying: What does it look like and what are its causes?

Habitual lying: What does it look like and what are its causes?

Everyone lies from time to time. Whether it’s to get out of work or spare someone’s feelings, lying every once in a while is normal and common.

However, when someone lies frequently, they are known as a habitual liar. Lying often is harmful, and can even be a sign of an underlying mental health or personality disorder.

What Is a Habitual Liar?

A habitual liar is someone who consistently engages in the act of lying as a regular pattern of behavior. There can be various factors that contribute to the development of habitual lying tendencies such as:

  • Escaping consequences. Some individuals may resort to habitual lying as a means to escape negative consequences or punishment. They may believe that lying provides a better outcome than telling the truth, even if it is short-lived or leads to more significant problems in the long run.
  • Reinforcement. If a person experiences favorable outcomes or avoids negative consequences by lying, they may continue to do so in order to maintain those benefits. This reinforcement makes the habit difficult to break.
  • Self-esteem issues. People who struggle with low self-esteem may resort to lying as a way to enhance their image or gain approval from others. 
  • Attention seeking. Some people who lie excessively may fabricate stories or exaggerate details to make themselves appear more interesting or significant. This behavior can be driven by a desire for recognition or a fear of being ignored or overlooked.
  • Avoiding vulnerability. Habitual liars may use lies as a defense mechanism to shield themselves from vulnerability or emotional exposure. By presenting a false narrative or persona, they create a protective barrier between themselves and others, preventing them from being truly known or judged.

It’s important to note that habitual lying can stem from a combination of these factors and may vary from person to person. Over time, habitual lying can become a deeply ingrained habit that is difficult to break without introspection, self-awareness, and a commitment to change.

What Is a Habitual Liar Called?

A habitual liar is commonly referred to as a compulsive liar, pathological liar, or chronic liar. These terms are used to describe individuals who engage in a pattern of lying without apparent reason or benefit, often to the extent that lying becomes an automatic response. 

Compulsive or pathological lying is typically associated with psychological conditions such as antisocial personality disorder or narcissistic personality disorder.

What Is the Difference Between a Habitual Liar and a Pathological Liar?

The terms “habitual liar” and “pathological liar” are often used interchangeably, but they can carry slightly different connotations.  A habitual liar refers to someone who frequently engages in lying as a habit or pattern of behavior. Habitual lying usually involves “white lying”, and is typically more about the frequency of lying rather than the underlying motivation behind it. 

A pathological liar, on the other hand, is someone who lies compulsively and chronically, often without apparent reason. Their lies may be rooted in a deep-seated need for attention, validation, or to manipulate others. Pathological lying is often seen as a symptom of an underlying psychological condition, such as narcissistic personality disorder or antisocial personality disorder.

These distinctions can be blurry and the terms are sometimes used interchangeably. In both cases, lying becomes a recurring and problematic behavior, but the underlying motivations may differ. Professional evaluation by a mental health expert is necessary to make a definitive diagnosis and determine the appropriate treatment, if needed.

Is Habitual Lying a Mental Illness?

Habitual lying is not classified as a mental illness in itself. However, it is considered a symptom associated with several mental disorders. One such condition is called factitious disorder imposed on self, previously known as Munchausen syndrome. People with this disorder have a tendency to lie about or exaggerate their own physical or psychological symptoms in order to assume the sick role and gain attention or sympathy.

 However, it’s important to note that not all individuals who engage in habitual lying have factitious disorder. Other mental health conditions, such as antisocial personality disorder or narcissistic personality disorder, may also involve a pattern of deceitful behavior, including frequent lying. These conditions are characterized by an individual’s disregard for the rights of others, manipulation, and a lack of empathy.

 It’s essential to recognize that habitual lying can also be a learned behavior or a response to certain life circumstances, rather than solely arising from a mental health condition. In some cases, it may serve as a maladaptive coping mechanism or a way to avoid negative consequences.

What Are the Signs of a Pathological Liar?

While it’s important to note that only a qualified professional can diagnose a pathological liar, there are several signs and behaviors commonly associated with this condition including::

  • Consistent lying. Pathological liars tend to lie frequently and persistently, even about trivial matters. They may embellish stories or make up details to make their lies more convincing.
  • Lack of remorse. Pathological liars often show little to no guilt or remorse about their lies, even when confronted with evidence contradicting their claims. 
  • Grandiose claims. Pathological liars may make exaggerated or grandiose claims about their accomplishments, experiences, or abilities. They may constantly seek attention and admiration from others by presenting themselves as exceptional or extraordinary.
  • Inconsistent stories. Since pathological liars tend to fabricate their narratives, their stories often lack consistency or coherence. When questioned or probed further, they may struggle to provide accurate or detailed information about their supposed experiences.
  • Lack of evidence or corroboration. Pathological liars often fail to provide any tangible evidence or credible witnesses to support their claims, and instead rely on their persuasion skills or charm.
  • Impulsiveness. Pathological lying can be associated with impulsive behavior. The lies may be told without much thought or consideration for the consequences, leading to a cycle of continued deceit.
  • Manipulative tendencies. Pathological liars may use their lies as a means of manipulating others and gaining control over situations. They may exploit people’s trust and emotions to achieve their own objectives.
  • History of lying. Pathological liars may have a long history of deception, and their lies may have caused problems in various aspects of their lives, such as relationships, employment, or legal issues. 

Pathological lying, also known as pseudologia fantastica, is a condition in which an individual habitually tells lies to anyone, including family members, friends, and even strangers. Pathological liars lie with no apparent motive. Pathological lying can be indicative of an underlying psychological condition, such as narcissistic personality disorder, antisocial personality disorder, or borderline personality disorder.

What Causes Habitual Lying?

Below are some potential factors that may contribute to habitual lying:

  • Personality disorders: pathological lying is commonly associated with certain personality disorders, such as antisocial personality disorder and narcissistic personality disorder. 
  • Attention-seeking and low self-esteem: some individuals who struggle with low self-esteem and a constant desire for attention may resort to pathological lying to gain recognition, admiration, or sympathy from others. 
  • Impulse control disorders: pathological lying has been observed in individuals with impulse control disorders, such as kleptomania or pyromania. These individuals may lie compulsively as part of their overall pattern of impulsive behavior.
  • Childhood trauma and abuse: Past experiences of trauma, neglect, or abuse during childhood may contribute to the development of pathological lying as a defense mechanism. Lying can be a way for individuals to cope with painful memories, avoid confrontation, or gain a sense of control in their lives.
  • Neurobiological factors: Some studies suggest that abnormalities in certain brain regions, such as the prefrontal cortex and amygdala, may be associated with pathological lying. Dysfunction in these areas could impact decision-making processes, emotional regulation, and moral reasoning, potentially leading to a propensity for lying.

Habitual, pathological, or compulsive lying is a complex behavior that can stem from a variety of factors. While the exact causes are not fully understood, the abovel theories have been proposed based on psychological and neurobiological research. 

Pathological lying is considered a complex behavior influenced by multiple factors. Diagnosis and treatment are best conducted by qualified mental health professionals who can assess the specific circumstances and underlying causes contributing to the behavior.

Are Pathological Liars Narcissistic?

Pathological lying and narcissism are two separate psychological constructs, but there can be some overlap between them. Pathological lying is a behavior that can be associated with various psychological disorders. 

Narcissism, on the other hand, is a personality trait characterized by a grandiose sense of self-importance, a strong need for admiration, and a lack of empathy for others. Narcissistic individuals often have an inflated self-image and believe they are superior to others. They may exploit and manipulate others to meet their own needs and seek constant validation and attention. 

While some individuals who engage in pathological lying may exhibit narcissistic traits, not all pathological liars are narcissistic, and not all narcissists are pathological liars. Pathological lying can be driven by various factors and is not just limited to the mental illnesses associated with it.

Pathological Liar Treatment

While there is no specific medication or definitive cure for pathological lying, treatment options are available to address the underlying psychological issues and help individuals manage their lying behavior. Here are some common approaches:

Treatment for pathological lying requires the individual’s willingness to participate and engage in the therapeutic process. Seeking the assistance of a mental health professional is crucial for an accurate diagnosis and to develop an appropriate treatment plan tailored to a person’s specific needs.

No matter the cause, habitual lying is harmful and can lead to a host of problems. However, anyone can resolve their lying tendencies if they’re willing to make a change.  If you think you or someone you know is a compulsive, pathological, or habitual liar, help is available — it may be time to reach out for support.

  • Clinical writer
  • Editorial writer
  • Medical reviewer
  • Clinical reviewer
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Theresa Lupcho, LPCLicensed Professional Counselor
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Theresa Lupcho is a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a passion for providing the utmost quality of services to individuals and couples struggling with relationship issues, depression, anxiety, abuse, ADHD, stress, family conflict, life transitions, grief, and more.

Kate Hanselman, PMHNP in New Haven, CT
Kate Hanselman, PMHNP-BCBoard-Certified Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner
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Kate Hanselman is a board-certified Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (PMHNP-BC). She specializes in family conflict, transgender issues, grief, sexual orientation issues, trauma, PTSD, anxiety, behavioral issues, and women’s issues.

Christine Ridley, Resident in Counseling in Winston-Salem, NC

Christine Ridley is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who specializes in adolescent and adult anxiety, depression, mood and thought disorders, addictive behaviors, and co-dependency issues.

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Delaney is a Marketing Writer Intern at Thriveworks, working toward her bachelor’s degree in English and Media Studies at the University of Virginia. Delaney has experience as a copywriter for her university’s chemistry department and as a journalist for the student newspaper Cavalier Daily.

We only use authoritative, trusted, and current sources in our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about our efforts to deliver factual, trustworthy information.

  • Yang, Y., Raine, A., Lencz, T., Bihrle, S., Lacasse, L., & Colletti, P. (2005). Prefrontal white matter in pathological liars. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 187(4), 320-325. doi:10.1192/bjp.187.4.320

  • Carnahan KT, Jha A. Factitious Disorder. [Updated 2023 Jan 2]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023 Jan-. Available from:

We update our content on a regular basis to ensure it reflects the most up-to-date, relevant, and valuable information. When we make a significant change, we summarize the updates and list the date on which they occurred. Read our editorial policy to learn more.

  • Originally published on February 19, 2019. 

    Author: Taylor Bennett

  • Updated on August 19, 2022

    Author: Taylor Bennett

    Reviewer: Kate Hanselman, PMHNP-BC

    Changes: Content clarified in “Highlights” section. Content added and clarified in “Signs I’m a Compulsive Liar” section. Medically reviewed to confirm the accuracy and enhance value.

  • Updated on July 27, 2023

    Authors: Delaney Hammond and Theresa Welsh, LPC

    Reviewer: Christine Ridley, LCSW

    Changes: Updated by a Thriveworks clinician in collaboration with our editorial team. Added additional, more helpful information about pathological lying and the terms that are often used interchangeably. In addition, added more details about treatment for those who engage in pathological lying. Clinically reviewed to further confirm accuracy and enhance value. 


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