Myth: Psychopaths are great liars. Part 3 – The nature of lying

An argument could be made that psychopaths – notorious for being pathological liars – are constitutionally unable to lie!

I’m going to get off the train just before it gets to that particular stop, but going some way along that line does open a new view on both psychopathy and lying.

I’ve argued that for the psychopath telling the truth and telling lies are equivalencies and that it not so much the psychopath’s intention to deceive as to dominate another.

The psychopath is a pathological liar and so is by definition a pathological truth-teller. It’s one and the same thing to him – a set of devices to enable him to dominate another.

If the psychopath does not tell lies or truths in the same way as a regular person, does it make good sense to say that he’s up to the same thing at all?

What is it like to be a bat?
I’ve been trying to find a metaphor to make this point. Let’s see whether this one can bear the necessary weight. A bat lives in darkness. During the day it sleeps in a pitch-black cave, at night it comes out finding its way and its prey by sonar. If it does encounter light, is the bat blinded? No, it’s eyesight is generally very good.

The bat, here, is the psychopath, and sonar is his intuition for finding prey. What is vision? Vision is, it might surprise, is the psychopath’s moral vision. The psychopath knows what is conventionally understood as right and wrong and he can operate by that light if he has to. But on a different plane of existence, his victim-sonar operates every waking minute.

And finding prey is the raison d’être; for that pupose, light/dark, right/wrong are beside the point.

He is the lie, from hello to good-bye.
The writer M.L. Gallagher once fell for a psychopath:

He is the lie….

From hello to good-bye. I love you to I hate you. You’re beautiful to you’re ugly.
It was all a lie….

When friends or my family ask, but what about this, or what about that, I tell them. It was all a lie. There was no truth in him.

If I spend my time trying to figure out fact from fiction, all I am doing is trying to prove — I wasn’t so stupid. See, this was true. That’s why I fell in love with him.

Truth is. I fell in love with him because I believed his lie.

When I discovered the truth, I was so enmeshed in his lie, I couldn’t find the truth in me. And so I sank.

Does the pathological liar lie?
Crooks and liars has a piece Melanie Morgan caught lying, and says, “Honestly, I might as well have written ‘Melanie Morgan caught breathing’; I think both actions are equally natural for her.” Now, I can’t vouch for the accuracy of this judgement, but you gett my point about how in some instances the word lie loses its meaning.

Similarly, if, for the psychopath, it is all a lie then to call indiviudal utterances truths or lies seems pointless – misleading even. Hence my suggestion that perhaps it makes little sense to call a psychopath’s lies lies.

An analogy. People with Asperger’s Syndrome are famously dispassionate. But there’s a difference between he is being dispassionate and he is dispassionate. The former suggests for now while the latter suggests now and always.

Once we have these two locutions to choose from, it seems that it would be wrong to describe someone with Asperger’s as being dispassionate, rather than dispassionate, period. It would certainly be odd to say that he is capable of being dispassionate, it seems to me, as he does not have the capacity to do otherwise.

Does the Asperger’s person know the difference between being dispassionate and not dispassioante? Yes, but it is not meaningful to him. And does the psychopath know the difference between right and wrong? Yes, but, similarly, this is not meaningful to him.

My definition of the lie needs amendment:

What qualifies something as a lie, then, is not its truth or falsity. rather, having the capacity for both deception and non-deception and then making the conscious (or unconscious) attempt to deceive (or be deceived by) others (and/or oneself).

Psychopaths are liars, but (it can be argued) they don’t tell lies!

Tomorrow’s guestpost is by a bonafide human lie detector who explains how she goes about identifying lies.

28 thoughts on “Myth: Psychopaths are great liars. Part 3 – The nature of lying

  1. Dr Steve: Let me see if I understand by offering a paraphrase. None of us know what we are going to say until we’ve said it; we’re guided through our utterances like a bat following sonar (actually, our general intention to make a statement) and trust our cortex will beep our reticular activating system if we take a wrong turn. One of the things in the cortex is a the moral brake which stops us before we tell a malignant lie. (Otherwise, we are also chronic liars; lies are the grease of social relations.) Sometimes it fails. For the psychopath it always fails, so he’s told a malignant lie before he knows he’s done so–not that it matters, because the moral brake necessary to cause discomfort isn’t there. Is that right?

    What I don’t understand is how that leads you to conclude the psychopath doesn’t lie. A lie is a social act. There are at least two parties involved in that act. And in addition to the moral dimension, there is a factual disparity which is independent of the moral dimension. So why should we judge what is a lie from the psychopath’s deficient perspective? The psychopath is not diagnosed from his perpective of things, so why should we want to take up that perspective regarding his lies. Our understanding the deficit doen’t alter the practical consequences: a lie is a lie is a lie.

  2. dumuarier-smith – 1. Your first paragraph is very interesting (it is quite far away from what I’m saying, though. I’m going to think a bit more about it and then respond.)

    2. I know, why do I keep banging on about this! I did say I wanted to get off a little before this point myself, but I still think the argument can be made (and may be useful – for what I don’t know yet.)

    Seriously, though, I’m not judging from the psychopath’s perspective or from the other party’s either. I’m taking a macro stance and wondering about how to classify it.

    All I can think to do is come up with more and more analogies which may not be such a good thing, but here goes. The psychoanalyst Winnicott said that before a certain age infants cannot be called ruthless (although an older person behaving that way might well be described as ruthless). The infant, he said, does not have the capacity for the opposite of ruthlessness – ruth, he called it – and was therefore pre-ruth.

    Now, IF it’s the case that the psychopath does not have the capacity not to be truthful can we not use a similar logic here? I.e. While another person doing this would be called a liar, the psychopath is speaking psychopathically – pre-honesty, perhaps.

  3. Ummmm…. well, whether or not he would call it a lie — I do. Did he know he was lying? Absolutely. Was he consciously choosing to lie, I believe he was because for him, lies are so much more exciting, interesting, clever than the truth. Telling the ‘truth’ is easy in his book. Lies require him to perform, to decieve, to dominate, as you say, his target. Getting someone to believe his lies are truth, thrilled him.

    The example that most typifies his adeptness at using untruths was the one that terrified me the most. About 1:30 in the morning, my cellphone rang and it was him. He was crying. Remorseful. Sorrowful. “I am so sorry. So sorry to have dragged you into this.” And then he went on to tell me about 3 bullets he’d recieved, and photographs — “I am part of a family that’s organized around ancient business tenets, and my partners are upset I went outside the family circle for love,” he said.

    Hello? Are you telling me you’re mafia?

    We don’t use that word, he quickly replied. We are simply a family that is organized.

    Uh uh.

    And…. my partners are worried I have told you too much and you will betray them.

    But you haven’t told me anything, I replied. And I would never betray you. I love you. (This is your paramoralism again. Let’s not focus on what I’ve said, let’s get you to focus, and defend, something that you can’t.)

    I know that, but they don’t, he said. And to ensure I keep you in line and that you stay silent, they have sent me 3 bullets and pictures of a young girl who looks remarkably like your eldest daughter (who was fourteen at the time). She is being violated by a group of men in this photo and they will kidnap your daughter, and drug her and put her in the sex trade if you do not do what I say.

    Now — was it a lie? At the time I wasn’t judging the contextual value of his words — I was judging my level of fear. Could they, would they do that? I didn’t want to test it.

    Did he know it was untrue? Absolutely. The photos never existed, he was not part of an organized family and because the evil men didn’t exist, they couldn’t kidnap my daughters.

    I didn’t know that and I wasn’t willing to risk my daughters lives to find out.

    He did.

    He said it anyway. He held that threat over my head whenever I made a move to break free. He absolutely needed to dominate me — and would use whatever means he could to do so. Lies were way more effective than truths — and thus, he used lies as his tool to dominate.

    Regarless of what tool he used, however — he knew he was lying. He didn’t care. The value in his lie was in its ability to keep me traumatized, and in place and dominated.

    He was more interested in getting what he wanted because it was what he wanted and that is all that counted.

    Doesn’t matter that he used whatever means to get it – it was still all a lie — and I’m not speaking just about the whoppers he told — but him, all of him, everything about him. Just as two wrongs do not make a right, two pathological lies do not make a truth — he is and always will be, The lie — The lie that is no longer in my life. The lie that has no place in my life today. The lie that died when he was removed from my existence.

  4. m.l. – You write about this so well!

    You’re absolutely right that he knew it wasn’t true, and you discovered that it wasn’t true. All my philosophising doesn’t change that!

    The bit where your comment and my argument are approaching the same ball park is where you say: “It was still all a lie — and I’m not speaking just about the whoppers he told — but him, all of him, everything about him.”

  5. dumuarier-smith – Thanks for your comment; as usual it has given me a workout! Here’s what it has led me to see more clearly.

    1. My bat analogy – the bat has sonar, other animals don’t except in rudimentary form; same with the psychopath and others. While he can operate using regular sight, he has something else entirely going on – an eye for the gap, a nose for weakness… – and that the real deal.

    I don’t think the moral brake notion applies to psychopaths except at a lightweight level of, say, deciding not to do anything untoward until the policeman has gone around the corner. I suspect that neurology will bear out that completely different regions of the mind are at work and that an idea like moral brake is like (what is it with me and analogies!) trying to make sense of a chess game by using the rules of scrabble.

  6. Dr. Steve: What’s with all of us and analogies? My “moral brake” was also an analogy, albeit a feeble one. Analogies are but weak metaphors, and metaphor underlies all human communication. Communication (all information processing, for that matter) rests upon the principle of the metaphor. All information is mediated, involves the use a medium event–say a word, or an electrochemical event in a sensory system–as something other than what it empirically is. Metaphor is the fundamental information paradigm. So none of us can throw stones at someone’s use of analogy–metaphorically speaking, of course.

    M. L. Gallagher wrote of “performance” as a challenge, a sort of desire for the spotlight, was my impression. The one psychopath I spent any time with loved being “center stage.” To be so adept at victimizing others, the psychopath must have some social skills and be somewhat gregarious. It seems to me that in popular media presentations psychopaths are deficted as introverted, melancholy loners. As in most things, I’m sure, psychopaths come in all shapes and sizes. But is there a tendency in one direction or the other?

  7. dumuarier-smith – I like that clarity on language and metaphor. Can you clear more one thing up? Why are analogies ‘weak’ metaphors?

    You’re right that in movies the psychopath is more than likely to be like the Unabomber than like OJ. I have no idea on numbers, etc. but do note that Hare, etc. always talk about the charm of the psychopath – which fits a lot better with your spotlight-seeker than the loner. Mm, I must read up on this; the Unabomber is suspected of being psychotic (he refused to speak with a psychiatrist) and Arthur Shawcross of Rochester, NY was mentally, what’s the word, retarded.

    My interest in lies, paramoralisms – empathy still to come – assumes the performing kind (if indeed it is only a kind).

  8. dumuarier-smith – I like that clarity on language and metaphor. Can you clear more one thing up? Why are analogies ‘weak’ metaphors?

    You’re right that in movies the psychopath is more than likely to be like the Unabomber than like OJ. I have no idea on numbers, etc. but do note that Hare, etc. always talk about the charm of the psychopath – which fits a lot better with your spotlight-seeker than the loner. Mm, I must read up on this; the Unabomber is suspected of being psychotic (he refused to speak with a psychiatrist) and Arthur Shawcross of Rochester, NY was mentally, what’s the word, retarded.

    My interest in lies, paramoralisms – empathy still to come – assumes the performing kind (if indeed it is only a kind).

  9. Perhaps using the word ‘lie’ or ‘truth’ is too easy. Perhaps the thing with the psychopath is the ‘story’. The P was very adept at telling his story, and adjusting it to fit whatever circumstance arose. He could weave fact and fiction together like a master. The knit would be so tight, I couldn’t discern fact from fiction — and so believed it all to be true.

    It is/was all part of the show. Part of the aura he needed to create to appear to be what he wasn’t — a decent human being, a man with a heart, not to mention, a conscience.

    See, I think the story-telling comes from wanting what others have — connection — and not knowing how to get it because they are lacking in human bonding skills.

    Psychopaths are so disconnected from the real world, they use story to weave their way into the lives of those around them. Doesn’t matter if the story is comprised of fact or fiction — as long as its a good story that keeps the listener attentive, connected and in the web — the story is all that counts.

    Hmmmm, interesting discourse Dr. Steve.

  10. Dr. Steve:
    I shouldn’t have said analogies are “weak” metaphors. That’s a rather literary sort of pronouncement. The metaphor rules in literature because it is more complex. My love is like a rose is not so interesting as “the rose of my life.” The idea is something like: anyone can make an analogy; only the best poets can make a metaphor seem a literal statement–which the analogy doesn’t claim to be.

    As applied to information processing, metaphor, rather than analogy, is the correct paradigm. Any sign of any kind literally involves using something as other than what it empirically is.

    Speaking of literate, having correspondents post here like M.L. Gallagher who writes so well from intimate knowledge transforms the psychopath from abstraction to reality–a close-up of a monster.

  11. m.l. – Oh, I like that. A story may have truth or untruth in it – but that’s not the point.

    DuMarurier-Smith picked up on your word ‘perform’ which also captures what you’re saying.

  12. I understand what you’re going for here. It demonstrates the true DIFFERENCE in ways of thinking & perspective of the sociopath.
    But for all intents & purposes for the rest of us (“potential victims”), I think they are termed “liars” simply because that’s what it LOOKS LIKE TO the rest of us.
    And I don’t think their manipulative truth-telling discounts it at all. Because it sure seems like manipulative truth-telling is tantamount to dishonesty.

    I also think there are habitual liars who are not sociopaths. People with Borderline Personality Disorder come rushing to mind. And I think they’re manipulative truth-tellers too! Difference being, from what I’ve seen, is that the Borderline will even lie to oneself, seemingly successfully. Whereas the sociopath could care less – they need only convince others.

  13. chloe – These distinctions you make are vital, thanks!. The borderline is as often as not a liar. Behind their lies, though, is a desperation to be in relationship. Not so for the psychopath. For him to it’s the other way round.

    For a good discussion of narcissism and borderline see:

  14. Because a psychopath lies as a means to a different end as a non-psychopath still does not disqualify it as a lie. The lie is part of a bigger story but is still a lie. Does it matter if it’s one or a whole story. The truth and a lie may be equivalent in use to achieve an end, or in use to promote a story, but one does not equal the other. Next look at this difference, does a psychopath know the difference between the two and does control of which one to use exist. You can’t lie if you don’t know what one is. Can you lie if you know what one is but can’t stop from using it? Seems that still makes you a liar, albeit an uncontrollable one. So constitutionally unable to lie, for me doesn’t work unless the psychopath is unable to distinguish the difference.

  15. benzthere – Lovely distinction. Yes, the psychopath does know when he is lying.

    Let me try this: if I lie to, say, protect a life – would you call me a liar? If so, does the term not lose its pejorative-ness? If not, then that suggests there are times when to speak of truth and lies is irrelevant.

  16. Dr. Steve, Literally, yes if you lie, that makes you a liar. And the lie to save a life, probably would lose its pejorative-ness. But lying is or should be a moral choice so I think there is a danger in saying a lie or the time to speak of truth or lies is irrelevant, even when its purpose is for something good, different, or more encompassing.

    Are you implying their lies are different so they’re not lies, do they detract from the bigger picture so are unimportant, or are they not lies because they cannot be controlled or because the psychopath may be lying to save his own life (or have I missed the point)?

  17. benzthere – You know how in movies about court cases the lawyer will ask an innocuous question (“And did you phone the police straight away?” “Yes”) and then pounce (“But you have told us that the first thing you did was look to see if the murderer was hiding under the bed; now you say you called the police straight away. How can the jury be expected to believe anything you say? You’ve been lying all along, havn’t you. You’re a liar; you killed Mr. Smith!”)?

    There’s something about this that I want to tease apart. The difference between 1. telling a lie and 2. being a liar. In other words something about levels. Then I go so far as to suggest that if one lives outside the world of morality the words lie and liar kind of loses their meaning.

    I guess I’m trying not to waste these word.

  18. Thank you for the explanation. Because of a primary motive other than deceit and because both lies and truth are manipulated to that end, the result is something other than or more than lying in the usual sense, i.e., just try explaining a relationship with a psychopath to someone with no experience or knowledge.

    From a “potential victim” perspective in already muddy waters, outrageous lies do seem an obvious characteristic. But along the road to understanding, redefinition and refinement are necessary and laudable. Hopefully the result will be, not more words, but better words. I’ll keep reading with rather awed anticipation.

  19. barabara – I’ve linked to your site. You have a very engaging way of writing about a heavy subject. I appreciate the feistiness of it!

    [How would you feel about my reproducing you little quiz on lies/projection in you Dec, 11 post? It’s funny (intentionally?) and true.]

  20. Dr. Steve

    I didn’t write that post. Almost all the posts on that particular site are articles gleaned from around the net. If you get permission from the owner (or put a fair use notice on your site which I will be happy to send you) you could probably use it no problem.

    I do write, but at my personal site:

    You can certainly give me a Hat Tip for that link.

    And thank you for the LINK!!

    If you need help finding the originator of that quiz, please write me at my email addy and I would be more than happy to help you out.


  21. I never tell a lie. Instead, I tell a truth and make it look like as if I am lying. Instead of telling a lie, I intentionally miss(do not tell) some important information. I use my attitude and everything to make the listener to strongly believe that I am lying and she/he is right(and she/he can prove that), that the listner will try to fight against me. I deeply enjoy that situation. I can dominate and manipulate every conversation finally leading to my victory! No matter how he/she try hard to win over me, at the very end I can defeat her. He/she will feel devastated at the end. He/she has just wasted all energy. What I have to do is just to enjoy the situation, scorn at one’s dumbness, waiting for the exciting and exciting end. I feel so fun when I am doing that. At the end, I scorn a person as much as I want and could even dominate him/her more than before. Lying is highly risky- and personally I think it is so much boring to tell a lie and make everything go well. Do other people enjoy this as I do? Anyway, I do not tell a lie. Never. But people often gets angry at me, and blame me, and I really cannot understand them. I told the truth, only the truth! Am I a pathological liar?

      1. I’m non native English speaker- May be you didn’t understand me? What do you mean? I don’t understand your reply.

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