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Is Pathological Lying the First Language of a Psychopath?

Updated: Mar 20, 2018

As anyone who is watching the second season of American Crime Story knows, Andrew Cunanan, the spree killer whose victims included Gianni Versace, was known to his friends as a pathological liar long before he killed anyone. Mark Andrews, a professional gambler sentenced this week for the beating his wife to death with a hammer, lied about being an ordained minister and made up a history of CIA involvement in Afghanistan. Healthcare serial killers Genene Jones and Kristen Gilbert also told elaborate falsehoods, claiming, among other things, to be related to various celebrities. Lying and murder have more in common than we think.

In my research and work with violent offenders, particularly those whose crimes were planned out ahead of time, I am struck by how often - usually by adolescence - they were lying often, for a myriad of reasons and without remorse. In fact, it happens so often that I am beginning to think it is one of the first solid clues that this person is capable of doing much more harm that people around him think.

Unfortunately, this is a clue that is often overlooked. Part of the reason is that lying is something we have all done. We have told a "white lie" to spare another person's feelings or to protect someone from a painful truth. We have lied to stay (or get out of) trouble. So, we think, while it's certainly nothing to brag about, lying is "normal" and, as a result, not all that bad.

Pathological lying is different, especially when the motive is to manipulate and deceive others. Pathological liars present false images of themselves to others to get what they want. They may tell tales of "crazy" exes to make us feel sorry for them and lower our guard. They may fake an illness or accident to get our money. They withhold information or lie about their gambling, alcoholism, drug use or cheating so we can't make safe or informed decisions. These lies are told to dominate and control us, whether it's by dazzling us with their accomplishments or lying to steal our hearts.

While pathological lying is not a mental disorder in itself, someone who habitually uses deception to gain an advantage over or exploit others invariably has other disturbing personality traits and behaviors. Convicted murderer Mark Andrews, for instance, mooched off of his family and psychologically abused his wives. We can find numerous stories on the internet of betrayed friends and exploited lovers who gave a pathologically-lying-but-still-charming man or woman the benefit of the doubt and lived to regret it. So, while most pathological liars don't kill someone, they are likely to demand a lot more out of you than they're willing to give back. And the realization that we're constantly treating a person better than they treat us is always time to make a change.

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