What Is the Difference Between a Pathological Liar and a Compulsive Liar?

Medically Reviewed on 12/14/2022

How do I know if I am a pathological or compulsive liar?

Pathological liar: A liar lies incessantly to get their way
Pathological liar lies incessantly to get their way and does so with little awareness. A compulsive liar lies out of habit.

Below are the differences or symptoms between compulsive and pathological liars.

Pathological liar

A liar lies incessantly to get their way and does so with little awareness.

  • It is viewed as a coping mechanism developed in early childhood and is often associated with some other type of mental health disorder like an antisocial personality disorder. It could be that they lie to avoid something traumatic that happened in their lives, such as abuse, or the condition may be genetic.
  • When it comes to pathological liars, it is observed that people who have an antisocial personality disorder (APD) and narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) indulge in lying.
  • A pathological liar is often goal-oriented (i.e., focused, one tells lies to get their way).
  • They have very little regard or respect for the rights and feelings of others.
  • They are often considered manipulative and cunning.
  • They create extravagant stories that may be maintained or tweaked over time, and they often believe their lies or have a weak grip on reality.
  • Unlike compulsive liars, pathological liars are near impossible to catch in the act. These people are excellent liars because they lie constantly and make stories up unnecessarily, and often, it becomes extremely difficult to distinguish the truth from false statements.
  • Pathological liars know how to be confident while lying and use their pathological lying trait as a defense mechanism (e.g. they fix their gaze upon you rather than looking away).
  • Some of the symptoms of a pathological liar are: they lie to gain something, exaggerating things, they keep on changing their stories, and they live in a false sense of ‘reality.’ If confronted, they act defensive and never admit that they are liars. Lastly, they hold no value for truth.

Compulsive liar

A liar who lies out of habit.

  • Compulsive liars bend the truth about everything, large or small. For a compulsive liar, telling the truth is very awkward and uncomfortable, while lying feels right.
  • Compulsive lying is usually thought to develop in early childhood, due to being placed in an environment where lying was necessary and routine.
  • A lot of them find it easy to avoid confrontations with the truth, hence they stick to lying.
  • Compulsive liars may or may not experience a mental disorder. Usually, it is observed that people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), bipolar disorder, and borderline personality disorder resort to lying compulsively.
  • Compulsive liars are not overly manipulative and cunning (see, Pathological Liar), rather they simply lie out of habit, which is an automatic response that is hard to break and one that takes its toll on a relationship.
  • Compulsive liars lie because of several reasons. However, it may always be easy to find out if they are lying because their stories usually do not add up.
  • They are also obvious and display classic lying behaviors, such as avoiding eye contact, breaking out into a sweat, and tripping over their words or rambling.
  • They often lie for no clear reason, and sometimes, for no real benefit, they make lies up more spontaneously, don’t do much thinking, and prefer to tell the sorts of lies that they think people want to hear.
  • They know the difference between reality and lies.
  • They are more likely to admit to lying when confronted, though this might not stop them from continuing to lie.

What are the three types of liar?

There are three main liars.

  • Natural liars - This is the most common type of liar.  Natural liars are people who can lie easily with great success and skills. They don't believe their own lies, they're just good at lying. 
  • Pathological liars - Pathological lying is often a warning sign of antisocial personality disorder (commonly known as a psychopath). A pathological liar is usually considered manipulative, selfish, and cunning.
  • Compulsive liars - Compulsive liars bend the truth about everything, large or small. For a compulsive liar, telling the truth is very awkward and uncomfortable, while lying feels right.

How to identify signs of pathological lying

It can be difficult to spot pathological lying. After all, the people who do it are so accustomed to telling random lies that they themselves may not even be aware of their actions. They may even have a great personality on the outside. 

Some traits of a pathological liar may include the following:

  • Lies even about insignificant details
  • Tendency to contradict themselves
  • Appear to have little to no regret regarding how their lies affect others
  • May become defensive or angry if confronted, even if there is proof

What causes pathological liars to lie deliberately?

Studies have shown that pathological liars have more white matter in their prefrontal cortex, which is the front part of the brain. 

White matter is linked to faster connections, linguistic fluency, and thought processing, which could explain why someone with more white matter would be prone to lying.


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Treatment for compulsive and pathological liars

The success of the treatment depends upon whether the person actually agrees that they are a ‘compulsive liar’ or a ‘pathological liar.’

Treatment options may include:

  • Psychotherapy
  • Repeated counseling
  • Antipsychotic medications
  • Family support goes a long way in overcoming this habit too, along with the treatment.

The treatment options may sometimes be used in combination, depending on the underlying psychiatric condition.

Can a pathological liar love someone?

While lying now and then is normal, a pathological liar goes far beyond that. Pathological liars lie for no apparent reason, as lying becomes ingrained in them, and telling lies may come more naturally to them than telling the truth.

Although pathological liars may be able to love someone, it is often difficult for them to maintain an honest and healthy relationship. This can result in toxic relationships that cause stress and hurt to their partners.

What is the difference between white lies and pathological lies?

White lies are often told to avoid hurting someone’s feelings or getting out of uncomfortable situations. These lies are usually innocuous and sometimes even necessary. For example, complimenting your host’s cooking even if you don’t like it is harmless and even a sign of social intelligence.

However, pathological liars often lack empathy and their lies are more calculated, often causing harm to their victims. Pathological liars are frequently motivated by selfish desires and lie to manipulate others. 

Some pathological liars have difficulty holding down long-term careers and tend to wander through life-changing jobs and relationships as their lies eventually catch up with them.

Can pathological liars have relationships?

Being in a relationship with a pathological liar can be exasperating. You may find it difficult to trust them, especially if you notice a pattern in their lies and deceit.

If you believe you're dealing with a compulsive liar, the following tips can help you cope with the situation:

  • Call them out: When you catch the liar in a lie, let them know that you know they are lying. However, keep in mind that this could make them resentful. Stay calm and try to help them understand why they're lying and encourage them to seek help outside of your relationship.
  • Don’t debate: Although dealing with a compulsive liar can be extremely painful, debating with someone who lives in a dream world is not going to change them. Starting a fight with someone who may not even be aware of what they're doing won’t help anyone,
  • Walk away: You may need to end the relationship if a pathological liar continues to deceive even after you have expressed your concerns. Lies are devastating to a relationship, and they need to understand that if they want to keep the people they care about in their lives.
  • Seek professional help: Professional help may be required to help pathological liars realize and effectively deal with deep-seated issues. Depending on whether pathological lying is a symptom of an underlying mental disorder, treatment may include psychotherapy, medication, or both. If you're in a romantic relationship, couples counseling may help you work through your relationship problems.

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Medically Reviewed on 12/14/2022
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Sullivan M. Compulsive Liars: The Truth About Lying. PsychAlive. https://www.psychalive.org/compulsive-liars/

Health Research Funding. Difference between Pathological and Compulsive Liar. https://healthresearchfunding.org/difference-pathological-compulsive-liar/