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.
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?