Robert had been a liar, pure and simple, since childhood. He lied about little things, like what he had had for dinner the night before. And he lied about big things: where he had gone to college and having served in the military. Robert lied when he felt he had good reason to, whether it was to get a better job, impress women, or avoid getting in trouble. But he also lied simply to impress people.
Lying. Dissembling. Prevaricating. They are all different labels for versions of the same activity: deliberately misleading others and getting them to believe something that is not true, through words or actions. In some cases, lying can be compulsive and with no apparent reason for it. That’s what mental health professionals refer to as pathological lying or “Pseudologia fantastica.”
Pathological lying is one of the elements mental health professionals consider in diagnosing psychopathy. As I point out in “Almost a Psychopath,” lying is not limited to full-fledged psychopaths. It is common, to an extent, in the general population, and especially common among those who we describe as “almost psychopaths.” Let’s consider the following case example of Robert, the origins of his lying, and where he might fall along the psychopathy spectrum.
Robert was an executive at a large corporation. A college graduate with an MBA, he lived comfortably in the suburbs with his wife and two children. They had settled far away from his parents, siblings, and anyone else who would have known anything about his early life. To his employer and colleagues, he was a personable and talented manager. To his neighbors, he was a nice guy, if a bit on the quiet side. He seemed to be doing very well in his career, as evidenced by his purchases of increasingly expensive cars and his wife’s growing jewelry collection.
At work and in the community, people took note of Robert’s academic pedigree and his vague references to his military service, which reportedly included commendations for valor and a Purple Heart. He seemed reluctant to discuss his military experience, which others chalked up to how traumatic it had been, or modesty, or both. Occasionally, such as at neighborhood barbecues or when meeting with new clients, he would share more details of his combat heroics and important missions. At work he talked about using his high level military contacts to attract more business to the firm.
Unfortunately, none of this was true. He had, in fact, served in the National Guard, but had never been in combat and never received any commendations. He had no high level military contacts. Moreover, he had not attended the prestigious business school or college he had claimed.
Robert’s many deceptions came to light when he became the focus of an investigation into financial irregularities in his division. People had noticed that his lifestyle substantially exceeded his income. An investigator interviewed him and took a closer look at his resume and several years of his expense claims. When the investigation was complete, Robert was immediately fired for filing false claims for business expenses and making false statements on his employment application.
Is Robert a psychopath? Almost. Factors that point to him being a psychopath are his pathological lying, stealing by way of submitting false expense claims, and his conning and manipulative behavior in his interactions with people. Still, he would not meet the full criteria for psychopathy. He had never stolen from anyone before, and when he started he rationalized that his false expense claims as necessary to adequately support his family and make up for his inadequate salary. Unlike psychopaths, Robert has a great deal of empathy for others and was emotionally sensitive. By virtue of his fulfilling only a few, albeit some very important, criteria of psychopathy, we would say that Robert is almost a psychopath.
What about his lying? This had been a consistent part of Robert’s behavior since childhood. Since then, Robert had told lies to get people to like and respect him. He had a terrible self-image, largely resulting from growing up relatively poor and with few friends. Early on, he had learned to invent what he felt were better versions of himself—someone other people would like better than the real Robert. His life became more complicated with each new set of lies. When they reached critical mass, he would move on to a new situation or community, always honing his skills at deception. Unfortunately, for him and his family, the house of lies he constructed eventually collapsed with only a slight nudge from someone with a sharp eye.
As I discuss in my book, Almost a Psychopath, children and adults lie for reasons ranging from innocuous to evil. It’s not unusual for kids to make up stories to help themselves or families seem more impressive, especially if they feel they are somehow deficient in comparison to those around them. Most children grow out of that, but Robert never did. Moreover, Robert’s continued deceptions and eventual criminal behavior evolved, and he ended up with enough psychopathic traits. He is almost a psychopath.
Could anything have been done to keep Robert from growing into an almost psychopath and ending up as he did? Lying is a normal part of growing up, and is generally accepted in limited quantities and certain circumstances. A developing sense of right and wrong, combined with a more solid grasp of the difference between reality and fantasy, leads most children to grow out of the more fantastic lying that goes on in the early years. For the most part, parents need only pay attention and respond if lying seems to increase over time and becomes a consistent part of their child’s behavior. As they enter young adulthood, people like Robert have greater freedom to lie, since they are no longer subject to the scrutiny of teachers and fellow students. Conversely, the stakes become higher, and the consequences for lying greater.
What can you do if you encounter someone like Robert in your personal or work life? Pay attention to patterns of inconsistency or outright deception. Most of us tend to brush these things off until we suddenly realize that we, and others have been duped. Usually, the best way to handle someone like Robert is to confront him (or her) on his behavior. If this is someone in your personal life, encourage him to get into treatment to address underlying issues that lead to the lying. Hopefully, help will come before it’s too late.
If this is someone in your work life, your best course will be determined by your work role. If you are a manager, your obligation to your employer requires that you take steps to determine whether this person has engaged in misconduct above and beyond telling self-aggrandizing stories. Such behavior indicates an increased risk of other misconduct, including fraud. And if you are a coworker, consider talking to a supervisor about your concerns in order to protect yourself, others, and your employer.