Myth: Psychopaths are great liars. Part 1 – The lies of psychopaths

In a series of posts I’m going to build a case against the common sense notion about psychopathic liars.

Let me say from the start that there is very good reason to make the claim that psychopaths are pathological liars – they are pathological, they are chronic tellers of untruths, and this dishonesty is tied up with their pathology.

However, to describe psychopaths as great liars misses something important about the nature and function of  the psychopaths’ untruths and their motives. It also undermines our understanding of lying itself.

Let’s start by considering the nature of psychopaths’ lies
(I’ll call them lies for now, though post #3 will query that).

deceptionblog discusses a recent article by the researchers Zina Lee, et al. which systematically studies psychopathic prisoners’ lying and truthfulness compared with non-psychopathic prisoners. 45 randomly selected prisoners were asked to tell the truth about the crime for which they had been convicted and to lie about a theft they did not commit.

Some results:

a. Psychopaths provide more appropriate details and more spontaneuous corrections when lying. This is the converse of regular people who do more of these when telling the truth. (This makes their lies more plausible, but their truths less so.)

b. Psychopath speech is less coherent than non-psychopaths whether telling the truth or lying. (They do not put much store in building a full story – instead they are satisfied with winging it.)

c. Psychopaths were equally likely to be judged as credible whether or not they were lying. (They are no better at lying than at telling the truth.)

To summarise: psychopaths’  lying and truth-telling do no have the usual markers, and psychopathic speech on its own is not particularly convincing. Perhaps they lie more often than others (?), but psychopaths do not deserve their reputation for telling good lies.

And yet we know that psychopaths are most proficient at deceiving people. How do they accomplish this? Not through their ingeniously constructed lies, but through their manner and accompanying actions.

“The content of their speech is not effective at facilitating manipulation and deceiving others” (Lee, et al., p. 81). I.e. it’s not the clever words of the psychopath that misleads the listener, but rather other distracting behaviours.

Example: the psychopath’s arrogance and grandiosity may be taked as confidence and it is this that both convinces and distracts the listener form the psychopath’s words.

Example: with his sob story (we now know that it’s the sob not the story that does the convincing) the psychopath evokes the sympathy of the listener.

Example: through passive aggressive insinuation the psychopath increases the listener’s guilt and so shuts down clear thinking

Example: using direct intimidation the psychopath causes fear or dread, not good bases for critical reflection.

For more examples see The Lie Guy.

The truth in the mouth of the psychopath
Take this generally uncontentious statement from the wikipedia ‘psychopath’ entry:

Psychopaths have a superficial charm about them, enabled by a willingness to say anything without concern for accuracy or truth. This extends into their pathological lying and willingness to con and manipulate others for personal gain or amusement.

I’ve highlighted in bold the crucial bit – they’ll say anything – lie or truth. A psychopath will lie through his teeth no problem. However, if telling the truth will attain his goal a psychopath may well do that rather than lie.

As we know from the research above, the psychopath’s truths are no better than his lies. But what makes the truths work (psychopathically)? Same as with the lies, they work because of the psychopath’s manner and accompanying actions.

To give only one scenario: in order to dominate someone, the psychopath is brutally honest – with the emphasis on the brutal!

In other words, to concentrate on the lies of the psychopath is to miss the fact that for the psychopath his truths play precisely the same role as his lies – the words of the psychopath are, to cite evan below, instrumental.

The wikipedia quote could have the following amendment:

This extends into their pathological lying and pathological truth-telling in their willingness to con and manipulate others for personal gain or amusement.

In the next post in the series I will ask the question: is it the intention of the psychopath to deceive?

45 thoughts on “Myth: Psychopaths are great liars. Part 1 – The lies of psychopaths

  1. Pingback: ShrinkWrapped
  2. Are psychopaths and sociopaths the same thing? I thought a sociopath was one who cannot feel any sympathy or empathy for others and a psychopath was a Norman Bates type. But maybe there’s no difference except I thought one could be a sociopath without being violent. I’m confused.

    At any rate, the people I have known who I called sociopaths were people who lied all the time and could not stop talking because they believed they were smarter than everyone else and could talk their way out of anything. Cops love sociopaths because they will always talk their way into prison and rarely have the sense to lawyer up before they talk. Psychopaths, on the other hand, are more cunning and more difficult to obtain a confession from. I’m probably assigning my own meanings to these terms, but I think there are two distinct types which require different words to describe.

  3. Zina says that:
    c. Psychopaths were equally likely to be judged as credible whether or not they were lying. (They are no better at lying than at telling the truth.)

    How did this compare with non-psychopaths? I would be very interested to know.

    I’m looking forward to the series.

    It seems that psychopaths don’t prefer lies or dislike truth. It seems they are simply indifferent – their words are instrumental – designed to achieve an end with no consideration to the means used.

    Interesting too that it isn’t mostly about the words. This surprised – though I guess it shouldn’t have; I’ve heard often enough how the non-verbal is what is more important for communication. I guess this means I’m a very verbal person.

  4. flash – People do use different words and mean different things, you’re right.
    My own sense is that each change in the lingo has been an attempt to use a less judgemental-sounding term – from psychopath to sociopath to antisocial personality disorder. My stance is that we’re talking about something stark here, let’s not beat about the bush. So psychopath it is.
    As for the differences – I’m with the psychoanalyst Nancy McWilliams on this. Psychopaths are not all serial killers; some are perfectly valuable members of society. They make good salespeople, for example (of course not many salespeople are psychopaths).
    What is a psychopath? Someone who operates not according to love, but according to power. (Some kill, some make a killing!)
    So I wouldn’t want to call the non-destructive ones by a polite name because that muddies the water about what’s under the hood (to mix metaphors).
    However, we shouldn’t mix psychopaths up with other personality disorders like narcissism, borderline, etc. and which do operate according to the principle of love.
    That’s how I think, anyway.

  5. evan – Us verbal types need to have our wits about us, hey? I’m going to be writing for soon. One of my colleagues there is a psychiatrist all of whose training (at USC, UCLA, and Yale) did not protect her from being taken for a horrendous ride by a psychopath.

  6. Seems odd to use the same word to describe Richard Kuklinski (the Iceman) who killed perhaps 200 people and someone who may be no more than a smooth talking salesman. Actually, I don’t think the shrink who interviewed Kuklinski on HBO even used the term psychopath. If I remember he said Kuklinski was a rare one who was both antisocial and paranoid.

    But here is where words really get mixed up. Antisocial seems an odd word to describe a wholesale murderer.

  7. flash – I can see what you’re saying. It depends on whether one looks at the external effects or the internal structure. An analogy – I’d call someone an alcoholic who drinks himself straight back into oblivion every time he wakes up. AND I’d call someone an alcoholic who doesn’t drink at all any more but who still has that mentality (feeling sorry for himself, blaming others, low tolerance
    of frustration, etc.). The kind of person they to say to at AA in their direct fashion: “You might be sober, but you’re still an asshole.” But I do see the difficulty you raise.
    Thanks for reminding me of the HBO interview with Kuklinski. If I’d remembered it I would have mentioned it in my post as a classic example of a psychopath telling liea and truths in exactly the same way and for the same purpose – in this case to become famous and to make a fool of the interviewer. Sitting at some distance it was so obvious to me that the psychopath wanted notoriety, to be on TV, and to fool a famous shrink that he spun an outrageous and ridiculous story. The shrink bought it because why? Because he wanted to believe that there was an amazing story to be told – one so amazing that HBO would show it. So Kuklinski was “rare” and was both antisocial and paranoid. (Did he seeem paranoid to you?)
    Have another look and see how the shrink asks leading questions and the psychopath picks up on them and spins out all sorts of rubbish. (Thanks again – I may write more about this sick little dance.)
    The interview inadvertently confirms my thesis about psychopaths: they’re brilliant at reading others; they tell stupid lies and tell truths badly; they convince via means outside the lies/truths themselves; the other person plays their part too.

  8. When I’ve watched people I suspect are psychopaths, I’ve noticed the truths sprinkled in, and it is those truths that really grab the attention of people listening.

    It’s as if people believe someone will be either totally honest or totally dishonest and psychopaths use this to their advantage.

    “He said that and that was the truth…so perhaps he is honest.” Instead the victims doubt themselves.

    Psychopaths are the ultimate manipulator of other people’s emotions.

  9. eyes for lies – Sprinkling truths – yes, that makes good sense to me. It fits with my conjecture that the distinction between lie and truth makes no diffs to the psychopath. It’s as evan (above) says, “their words are instrumental”. Regular folks, as you suggest, can’t quite believe this.

  10. Most of our communication is “participatory.” We participate in it on “auto-pilot.” Both verbal and nonverbal acts are the same mode of “unconscious” behavior as body-englishing pool balls, getting weepy in a movie, or feeling better after talking with someone really “up” and happy. It’s partly empathy; you can’t will yourself into participation, you have to act your way into it.

    What happens if you’re communicating with someone who doesn’t have that response capability? My observations of people identified as psychopaths is that they are active (even to the point of being “pushy”) only in the expressive phase. When they are listening, they seem quite focused upon but not participating in the communication behavior of the other person. They are not giving the usual “nonverbal” cues–the nods, “Uh-huhs,” smiles and other facial/bodily expressions.

    Perhaps they are so notoriously successful in manipulation because we participate with them while they contemplate us.

  11. dumaurier-smith – Interesting observation. So they are able to use or not use their interactive capacities while regular folks can only use them.
    Have you seen She is a ‘human lie detector’ – tested to be one of the 0.3% of people who can pick out lies.

  12. It may be the psychopath is missing the “piece” which enables empathic receptive responses. Or maybe some can, but don’t participate, and some just can’t. As with most things, it’s probably a question of degree.

    I’ve had extended communication with only one rather extreme psychopath, a hired killer. He was a natural story-teller and it as was hard to avoid being “sucked in” as to avoid identification with a fascinating movie villain. I’m convinced he simply had a piece missing. He told of torturing people and laughed about their agonies as if they were silly antics.

    I’ve not read anything on deception since Ekman 10-15 years ago. Thanks for the note on eyesforlies blog. I’ll visit her site.

  13. dumaurier-smith – You raise something I want to think and write more about. I can’t go along with idea that the psychopath has no empathy. Quite the contrary, the psychopath is an empathic virtuoso! It’s just that his empathy doesn’t translate into sympathy and behaving empathically.

    1. Dr. Steve- Very old post but someone may find my reply of value. I know a man, we were friends for 25 years and dated for 9 months (very recently ended, shockingly badly). He is CEO of a publicly traded, billion dollar business. He is deeply undercover, his career suits his PD, normalizing his behavior and lending him immense credibility. When that fails, there is the philanthropy to reaffirm the mercurial but really a good guy at heart persona.

      Nobody knows that this is all a con, he is a full on NPD/psychopath. I could have lived a lifetime without this horrible ordeal. Very long story but with benefit of reflection it’s replete with red flags.

      He said “at least now you know WHAT I am” and claimed he tried to warn me.

      His warning consisted of calmly saying to me, ” you don’t know how lucky you are to love people the way you do and to empathize the way you do.” I replied with “well doesn’t everybody?” He just looked ahead and kept on driving.

      Psychopaths intellectually understand empathy. They have observed empathic behavior since birth. I believe even the most narcissistic of psychopaths has an inkling they are not like the rest of us in this regard. They are keen eyed observers, needing to blend, they are not stupid they know if they need to feign emotion to produce socially expected behavior. I suggest to you they are not virtuosos of empathy, but rather master thespians. They are not blocking/blocked from gaining access to a wellspring of empathy to translate into sympathy. It is just another equation, a practical, learned, expedient formula to win what they desire.

      1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I disagree, however. Compare the type of person you’re derscribing to the autistic person (who genuinely has no empathy). The autistic is trained to mimic regular folks and does it incredibly badly. How come the PP does it so effecftively? It can’t be thropugh copying.

  14. Dr. Steve: Maybe this guy I talked to had a piece too many. In any case, I can’t believe he was normally socialized. I’m probably too saturated with a social transaction view of empathy, but I can’t get my mind around the empathy you describe. In the absense of empathic behavior and affect, what does “empathy” mean? How is it manifested? Can you trust self-reports from a psychopath?

    When you do write it up, I hope you’ll reference it here.

  15. dumaurier-smith – I’ll keep my answer on the empathy business up my sleeve until I post it.
    But a quick answer to your question: “Can you trust self-reports from a psychopath?” Absolutely not.

  16. Dr. Steve, here’s the distilled story of my experience with a possible sociopath (definitely narcissistic):….

    That was 4 years ago. I am still in trauma counseling. Still have PTSD, though the panic attacks have gotten less frequent. I was abused as a child and my ex-husband so my counselors all tell me this will be a long untangling process for me. But for myself & my kids I am keeping at it.


    I don’t think I will ever understand why this man did what he did to me, or why he is portraying me like he did. He has admitted to people we both know he was wrong about my ‘attacks’ on him (which I never did, was done by another of his victims) but he won’t say so publicly. And he continues to attack & project cyclically. I am ignoring but still trying to understand.

    BTW – I run an anti-abuse blog. I am putting your link on there tonight!! KEEP WRITING! 🙂

  17. barabara – Thanks for the encouragement. You’ve been through the wringer, that’s for sure!

    Your readers may be interested in Dr. Liane Leedom’s work on bringing up the children who have a psychopathic parent:

    My Rule #1 re psychopaths: Avoid if all possible. Thuerefore I’ve taken the liberty of removing the potentially identifying stuff from your post. It’s not because I don’t believe you; it’s because I do! (Let me know if you’re unhappy with waht remains and I’ll remove it.)

  18. Dr. Steve – no that’s fine removing that stuff. If this was my blog I probably would have done the same, considering the man I posted you about stalks me (but tells everyone I am stalking him… LOL) from site to site. I know all about Love Fraud and Dr. Leedom’s site. My ex is a malignant narcissist and not a sociopath, small favor maybe.

    I was more interested in the man I left you 2 posts about, whom I was involved with during my separation. I had known him 37 years and was just interested in feedback. It’s going to be impossible for me to completely avoid him but I am IGNORING him as best I can. Just interested in feedback about his “confession” about what happened between us. For me it was so full of lies and misstatements. Unfortunately many people who know both of us – believed him.

    BTW – There’s an article about online sociopaths that might interest you:

    And thanks for believing me. I am good writer but even I couldn’t POSSIBLY make that stuff up.

  19. I’ve read all the blogs on this page and am wanting to put my 2 cents in. I hope you find it interesting. I have my own personal opinion and would love to hear from someone a contrary arguement. I believe yes, power is the ultimate goal of such said person. Why? Childhood trauma. Better to win someone else’s game of control than to be a victim. Power is addicting to a personality that has not yet fully formed. I believe we are born empathics. And if we are not recieving our daily doses of understanding, guidance, and compassion, we will seek something to fill this void to make us feel something. A psychopath is one who has given up hope mainly for the reason that taught at an early age that there was no such thing, turning the so called ‘illusion of it’ in others as a game to observe and control. Entertainment.

    Another unsettling truth is that there is a little bit of this in all of us. And to truly understand those with such incompassitations, we must agree with it. Know where the person is in their road to recovery, ah the path of life, yes.It is the truth is it not that we are here to learn. Learn what you say? Not to judge. Not to Judge?! Don’t those that take a life deserve to have their life taken? No. We cannot discrimminate against a soul that although damaged is obviously for the time not able to be healed.

    So have sparked the interest in anyone for a bit of a chat?

    1. Childhood trauma may be a contributing factor, but this knowledge is of no use – clinically or morally. These people have not been ‘taught’ this, they’ve decided this. They have taken a different and evil path. They can only be changed by a miracle, seriously. I am not a saint and so I don’t go there – there are enough regular folks for my life, thanks very much. As for judging – I say protect yourself; don’t judge for the sake of judging, it’s bad juju. On the other hand, to switch off your critical capacities (call it something else if not ‘judgement’) is a very dangerous error.

  20. I’m encountering young (20’s) psychopaths in my counseling work. I keep re-learning to trust in my reactons – in this case, nausea – to pull myself out of my illusion that I can help. The other clue – when I say “what you did was really clever” elicits a grin. I think at some level, the psychopath has a twisted admiration for those who can be as cunning as they are, in use it to see to see them for what they are.

  21. Really interesting material. I have known three people I would judge {after reading Cleckley, Hare} as psychopaths. What they had in common was an extraordinary ability to male other people feel guilty for not believing them! I also sensed an almost paranoiac grandiosity and absence of what I would call ‘goods life’ are there boy reliable self-reports about psychopathic experience? Have bookmarked you!

  22. To learn more about NPD, SPD and PPD characteristics of lying you may want to check out the web site of John Reid and Associates;
    Reid and Associates are one of the premier training groups in the US who work primarily with law enforcement. Reid and Associates also assist law enforcement agencies in solving difficult cases.

    Having been privileged to attend two programs while working for the State of Minnesota, when I finally discovered and confronted my PPD/NPD husband of 20+ years, I knew immediately he was lying. Reid teaches that a very obvious characteristic of liars is when they are lying they often stumble; “ahhh—-ah- I never met that man—–ahh– before that –ah –minute.” or they add information that is of no relevance to an answer in order to buy time to think up a plausible story. Can you tell I’ve been to court repeatedly with this man…and guess who wins….. NOT ME!

    It is common for PPD/SPD/NPD’s to find counsel with similar personality disorders. And in my case, the Judge… close friends with the PPD’s attorney. This country needs legislation at the national level that requires all “family”
    (an oxymoron) court judges and “family” lawyers to attend mandatory training on DV…psychological, emotional, verbal AND physical abuse. there have to be thousands of men and women who have been re-victimized by their abusers in court…..let’s lobby to stop this insanity.

    Another great website w/articles on legal abuse:

  23. iam the mother of a 12 yearolg girl who is showing servere signs of pathological lying which is getting worse on a weekly the point that iam acting in a totally bizare out of control manner.thats scaring me,i feel i have no control in stopping myself from hurting her.and she is fully aware of this .iam going insane iam now finding myself questioning the truth myself she is in full control of me her mother.iam turning into a physical and emotional wreck.and theres nothing i can do or stop er.she is aware she lyes and yet still lyes that a lye
    she controlls every situation and ends up leaving me a emotional wreck begging at er feet to stop doing this to me .iam begging my 12 year old to stop torturing my head.

    1. Hello Kerrie. Mm, this is very tough for you. A few comments if I may.
      1. It will help if you try to not take this personally. While it may be true that your daughter’s behavior is some kind of indirect comment/wish with regards your relationship, she is not trying to drive you crazy. Its a strange way of going about it, I know, but she needs your help.
      2. Given your level of distress I strongly recommend that you arrange for both of you to see a child or family therapist. Even though your daughter’s behavior seems to be the main issue, by now its a problem of its own in your relationship with her.
      3. Don’t imagine that you’re alone – it is natural for a parent who loves their child so much to be feel disturbed when things aren’t going well.
      4. It is very unlikey that your daughter is a psychopath. But you’re right, this behavior does need to stop. Get a professional to help.
      Bets wishes.

  24. The psychopaths have no empathy theory sounds like crap to me. The psychopath is very good at identifying their victims on body language/emotions etc, so I’d argue they have very high empathy, and get off on hurting & controlling people

    1. Absolutely correct, Xanthe. In fact some of them have very high empathic abilities – that’s how they can be con men. What they lack is not empathy, but sympathy, or pity. It is very curious that knowledgeable psychologists would make and perpetuate this error.

  25. An MRI set up to check for psychopathy can prove or disprove if one is a psychopath. Youtube video series “I, Psychopath” is a good place to start. Dr. James Fallon is a neuroscientist who is a psychopath with videos on Youtube as well. He also talks briefly about the genetic aspects of it. Once you see it up close you realise that it is just how their brain functions. It’s almost always after utter rape and destruction of your soul but if we just “let it out of the closet” so to speak, we could teach people how to protect themselves. There’s even evidence that it may be at the chormosonal level. So this is not anyones “fault” but pretending it’s not real is a lie and very harmful to ALL non-psychopaths around them.

  26. “Are psychopaths and sociopaths the same thing? I thought a sociopath was one who cannot feel any sympathy or empathy for others and a psychopath was a Norman Bates type. But maybe there’s no difference except I thought one could be a sociopath without being violent. I’m confused.”

    Many people insist that there is a distinction between psychopath and sociopath, but no one can agree on what it is. So I just treat the two as synonyms.

    And you can be a psychopath/sociopath without being violent. It’s more about the kind of personality you have than any specific actions you engage in.

    1. Hello Etttina
      It is confusion because different disciplines use different terms. (I se that the new edition of the psychiatrist’s manual – DSM5 – is going to include ‘psychopathy’ again.

  27. My son was diagnosed at the age of 13 when I had never heard of a psychopathic liar, that was 13 years ago and it seems to be who he is, not something fixable. Empathy, etc. he omits when he’s working. I believe he loves, feels, all the things we do but when he’s lieing it’s completely void in the real sense but used to convince at all cost. After researching this and showing it to my elders they(like me) saw all the traits of my Mother and a great aunt.

  28. I’ve read numerous times that the distinction between a sociopath and a psychopath is as follows. They are both virtualy identical aside from the fact that sociopaths are highly goal oriented, whilst psychopaths are almost completely without goals.

    1. Mm, that definition makes little sense to me. The definition I go with is that a sociopath’s behaviour is acceptable in his/her social group; say a gang member who inflicts pain because that’s the group’s code. A psychopath is someone who behaves badly simply because he wants to – he enjoys inflicting pain for its own sake.

  29. I think they are capable of expressing sympathy and not feeling empathy. They can see another’s pain and understand it, but not feel it. I have met some of these people I would say are psychopathic. They do indeed seem charming. But when something happens, they don’t really care. And the only time they even bother to show anything is when it may benefit them. Everything they do is to help themselves. They want to fulfill themselves with satisfaction. I also agree with the spinkling of truths. It makes it really simple to believe a story when most of it is true.

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