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Pathological liars I have known

There was this guy in college who just made stuff up. It was weird, then funny, then sad. He was clearly an intelligent guy and but for some reason felt the need to fabricate. One thing I remember was something about being a student of Carl Sagan at Cornell—at the same time as he was taking 11 classes a semester at MIT. But there were lots of other lies, things that were easily checkable. I never knew his background—he seemed like a nice guy but perhaps he was never really a student, or maybe he was in the U.S. illegally, I have no idea, but maybe he was already living a lie and so he felt he might as well keep going.

The other guy was a student at an institution where I taught. It turned out he was lying about all sorts of stuff and he got kicked out of the program. The whole thing baffled me, especially when, after it was all over, one of the other grad students told us that they all knew this guy was a pathological liar. Why didn’t they tell the faculty? I have no idea.

Whassup with these pathological liars? I dunno, but maybe it’s some sort of principle of least effort. For me, lying is effortful and work is easy, so I’d rather work. For these guys, I’m guessing that it’s soooo easy to lie, but buckling down and working is tough. And, I guess, once they get in the habit of lying, they just do more and more of it. I’d think that, in order to avoid detection, they’d want to minimize the number of lies they tell. But I guess that’s not how they think.

I’d distinguish pathological liars of this sort from people such as Marc Hauser or Dr. Anil Potti or Ed Wegman or Diederik Stapel or Michael Lacour, whose misrepresentations seem pretty clearly instrumental. What’s characteristic about pathological liars is that they lie about things where they’re not really gaining from the lie, or where whatever gains they might obtain from the lie are trivial compared to the losses from being found out. I’d also distinguish them from people like Hillary Clinton, who has a habit of tweaking her stories to make them a bit more dramatic. Behavior that’s acceptable for David Sedaris but which I don’t like so much in a politician. Unfortunately, I can see the instrumental value in Clinton’s exaggerations, especially given the motivation a politician has to say what she thinks her audience wants to hear. Pathological lying seems different—it’s florid exaggeration just for the hell of it.

We’ll be discussing this in next week’s Perceptions 301 class.

P.S. Just to continue this, I find instrumental liars disturbing but I find pathological liars scary. A few months ago I had some indirect dealings with someone who was on the border of these two categories, a Nixonian type who was lying in a somewhat arbitrary and unnecessary way but using these lies in an aggressive way. Someone who would just make stuff up about me and then use this as a basis for an attack: what would this guy be capable of? I do not want to engage with someone like that. People like David Brooks or even Ed Wegman I can understand: they make mistakes (or, in Wegman’s case, ethically questionable decisions) and then don’t want to back down. And I can understand people like Mark Hauser or Ron Unz who think they have a true model of the world and so don’t want to be bothered with details. I don’t follow this approach but I kinda see where they’re coming from. Or people like all those Psychological Science researchers who in, I assume, all sincerity, are using statistical methods that are the functional equivalent of the proverbial Tarot cards: sure, I’m bothered that they don’t do better but I understand that, by their lights, they’re working hard and following the rules. But the pathological liars, people like Ben Carson who will go to the trouble to make up an entire course at Yale just for the benefit of an already-implausible story, or this other guy I dealt with online, who scared me so much that I don’t even want to mention his name here: that scares me. A lot. It probably shouldn’t, and I’m probably displaying a disgracefully old-fashioned attitude toward mental illness. Given the casually negative attitudes many people have toward Tourette’s syndrome, I’m really the last person who should go around being creeped out by something as innocuous as pathological lying, maybe. So there you have it. Now I’m just tied up in knots.

P.P.S. Commenters have rightly pointed out that I may be overreacting to whatever the news media happen to want to focus on. Mark Palko reminded us of the history of the news media pouncing on the Clintons, and BrianB pointed to a report that Ben Carson’s story was based on an actual experience. In particular, if Carson did not “make up an entire course at Yale just for the benefit of an already-implausible story,” but instead he took a life experience and twisted it a bit, making it more dramatic, it’s not so different from what Hillary is so notorious for doing. In the language of my above post, Carson was acting instrumentally, not pathologically. He was writing a book so he wanted good stories so he exaggerated or made some things up to make the story better, which from a storytelling position makes sense. Just as it makes sense for Hillary Clinton to have expressed the risks she felt in traveling to war zones by saying that her plane was under fire. Or for that matter Joe Biden stealing somebody else’s biographical story because it worked well in a speech.

One reason that I may have been characterizing Carson’s stories as pathological rather than instrumental is that I was forgetting that, when he was writing a book, his goal was to sell books, he wasn’t running for president. And embellishing or even making up stories for an autobiography, that’s pretty standard practice: the goal is to give insight into the person, not to produce a documentary record. Carson’s later lies when running for president (see, for example, here) also fall in the instrumental category in that he’s denying something that looks bad.

34 Comments

  1. Jonathan (another one) says:

    Thanks for making me thinking of Morgan Fairchild naked for the first time in 20 years.

  2. Mark Palko says:

    I’ve been following this story for a long time (I was living in Arkansas during most of the nineties) and I long ago came to the conclusion that the Clintons’ reputation for “tweaking” has little to do with the actual level (which is, at worst, average for a politician and far below what wee might call the Reagan standard) and almost everything to do with narrative journalism and the biases of the press.

    Bill and Hillary triggered the profound (and profoundly ugly) class and regional prejudices of the NY/DC press corps. He was Huey P. Long/Lonesome Rhodes and she was Lady Macbeth. Ever since, much mainstream press reporting has focused on shoring up that story. The result was an odd unacknowledged alliance between the nominally liberal press and partisan conservatives, an alliance strengthened by the strange and nasty relationship between the press corps and Al Gore. Many 21st Century news organizations like TPM and Vox (http://www.vox.com/2015/7/6/8900143/hillary-clinton-reporting-rules) were, in no small part, reactions against this alliance.

    In general, whenever I see one of these stories of a politician or public figure having some horrible character flaw, I take it with a few hundred grains of salt. You constantly have to ask yourself “is this truly abnormal behavior or simply normal behavior selectively sampled?”

    • Andrew says:

      Mark:

      Regarding Bill and Hillary: You may be right on this one. I haven’t seen data on politicians’ lies. Of course, even if everybody does it, I don’t have to like it.

      Ben Carson, though, he really seems to be in a different league, more like the pathological liars I have known.

      • Mark Palko says:

        Carson is definitely in a different category, but even in that coverage I see some red flags that make me uncomfortable, particularly with the time range. For example, the pyramid quote came from 1998 andd as far as I can tell, it was a fairly obscure speech. I think it’s probably safe to say that almost every public statement Carson made over the past twenty years is being examined.

        These broad-net inquiries are invariably unfair because they are only applied to certain candidates who then have their low points from the past few decades compared to their competitors low points for the past year. That’s not to say that Carson wouldn’t still be the worst — He probably would — but those different time ranges do contaminate the data.

        Besides, those stories about West Point and Yale have a way of pushing aside the really disturbing stuff like this

        http://www.marketplace.org/topics/elections/full-interview-dr-ben-carson-economy

  3. Lord says:

    I have thought it is about people who love to talk and tell a story, so much so it is not about truth but truthiness and entertainment value at least to themselves if no one else, that never heard a story that couldn’t be embellished.

  4. Bruce McCullough says:

    Andrew,

    I think the word “tweak” for Hillary’s tendency toward needless prevarication is too gentle. (Here I do not refer to the obvious self-serving political lies.) What benefit could she obtain from the following lie? It can only be characterized according to your definition of pathological.

    Here is what she said:
    “I remember landing under sniper fire. There was supposed to be some kind of a greeting ceremony at the airport, but instead we just ran with our heads down to get into the vehicles to get to our base.”

    Here is a video of the actual greeting. Not running. Not heads down. No sniper fire.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8BfNqhV5hg4

    I won’t bore you with needless multiplication of the examples. But I think the word pathological might apply here.

    Regards,

    Bruce

    • Andrew says:

      Bruce:

      I think of Hillary’s lies (or storytelling, to use the term used by the previous commenter above) as being non-pathological in the sense that they are instrumental: saying she was under sniper fire makes a better story. But Ben Carson making up “Perceptions 301”—that just seems out of control. I’m not saying that pathological lying is morally worse than instrumental lying or exaggeration, it just seems like behavior that is outside our usual experience.

      • cheese_d says:

        I’ll go out on a limb here and defend Hillary’s sniper fire story, and the rough equivalent that Brian Williams told…

        There’s a good bit of psych literature (though I cringe, as I don’t know how its done through replication trials, if at all) that suggests our memories change each time we access them… and related literature dealing with how terribly inaccurate eye witness accounts are of a vivid event (e.g. an area where we are bystanders / non-experts like seeing a driveby shooting or being under fire in a war zone, esp. when we aren’t combat trained).

        The more poignant point on Hillary is about the whole ‘2 devices’ lie re: email server… I can’t wrap psychology around that, other than as an instrumental lie.

        Setting aside the current crop of politicians, there is a philosophical problem where if someone has a terrible memory that massively distorts past events in a self-serving way over and over, are they really distinguishable from someone who is a pathological liar? I’d suggest yes, but the difference may be subtle.

        My only concern about this post is: “I’m really the last person who should go around being creeped out by something as innocuous as pathological lying, maybe”… I’m not so sure that pathological lying is innocuous. People place a lot of value on trust. Here’s a closing approx. quote from Charles Munger that’s worth thinking on:

        Mr. Munger: Oh, it’s just so useful dealing with people you can trust and getting all the others the hell out of your life. It ought to be taught as a catechism. The trouble with doing it is, in an ordinary school, you’d immediately cast 40 percent of the people into oblivion.

        Nobody would even talk to them, and I’m not sure an egalitarian civilization is willing to be that tough. But wise people want to avoid other people who are just total rat poison, and there are a lot of them.

        qtd at:
        http://www.forbes.com/sites/phildemuth/2015/04/20/charlie-mungers-2015-daily-journal-annual-meeting-part-3/

  5. Moreno Klaus says:

    No talk about pathological liars should be complete without mentioning Lance Armstrong…But in sports he is just the tip of iceberg.

  6. Shecky R says:

    Andrew, over lunch I showed your piece to Steve Hawking and Ed Witten, and we all agreed you were right on the money with this post.

  7. Chris G says:

    I want my elected representatives to advocate for and implement good public policy. In evaluating candidates I try to estimate p(good policy|stated policy positions, propensity for lying, nature of lies). What do HRC’s embellishments suggest to me about what she’ll advocate for and what she won’t? Not much that I can’t already infer from what she has and hasn’t done as a politician and political figure. The priors which follow from propensity for lying and nature of the lies are consistent with the data. In contrast, what do Mental Ben’s pronouncements suggest about him? Well, policywise he’s a nightmare so even if he were 100% trustworthy I wouldn’t vote for him under pain of torture. Given what he’s for, that he’s out of his freaking mind is a secondary issue. (The term “delusional grifter” came up on another blog the other day. It fits.) p(good policy|stated policy positions)=0 so you don’t need to drill down any deeper than that.

  8. Njnnja says:

    I think you are tying yourself up in knots because you are trying to make distinctions that probably don’t exist: politician A is this kind of liar, politician B is that kind of liar. But they are all the same kind of liar: a *politician*. It makes sense: a typical voter has some multidimensional state space of preferred positions, and a politician not only needs to appear attractive in the dimensions the voter cares most about, they need to avoid positions that would be a deal-breaker. And my guess is that even though there is a lot of correlation between many voters, there is still enough heterogeneity that there probably isn’t any single position vector that would be found acceptable to the 50% of likely voters that a politician needs to get elected. So a politician has to tell one group he is going to help the middle class (by fighting special interest groups), then tells the next group that he is going to help special interest group A (at the expense of the vast middle class). To paraphrase Twain: There are lies, damned lies, and political speeches.

    Maybe Ben Carson only looks different because he hasn’t picked up the skills that a career politician has. Like if a relatively fit, tall average person were to play 1-1 basketball with a professional basketball player. Using a loose definition of the term, they are both “playing basketball,” but it would be pretty clear that it’s not the same thing.

    Q: How do you know a politician is lying?
    A: His lips are moving

    • Andrew says:

      Njnnja:

      Exaggeration and lying, sure. But making up an entire college course, just for the purpose of a story that makes no sense anyway? That’s outta control, kinda like that guy I knew in college who would just make up these ridiculous stories.

      Also let me remind you that, while “pathological liar” may not be a precise term in psychiatry, it’s a phrase that is common in the language. So it’s not like I’m just coming up with this concept out of nowhere.

      • Njnnja says:

        I’m not trying to defend the guy, and I really haven’t followed it very closely, but if I met somebody at a dinner party who said he was one of the world’s best neurosurgeons, that he had a movie made about him, that he trolled the president when he gave a speech with the president sitting right there, that he was accepted at West Point, and that a professor tried to run some elaborate hoax to find an honest student, I would absolutely think that he was a pathological liar (in the colloquial sense), but not because of the last two assertions!

        FWIW part of why the class story doesn’t bother me very much is because I actually have a story that is somewhat similar. In a graduate game theory (IIRC) class, the final exam was going to be some set percentage of your grade. The Prof said, a week or two before the final, that nobody was doing poorly enough to fail, and that she was going to grade on a curve, and pointed out that if everybody got a zero on the final then the same number of people would still get an H, HP, P, etc. So if we all ditched the final we, aggregated as a class, wouldn’t do any worse, and might be able to study more for other exams or work on other projects more, or even just relax a little more during finals. But of course if some people took it and others didn’t, then the people who took it would wreck the curve. It became a big topic of conversation outside of class until somebody had the idea that after the next class, we would stay after the prof left and would discuss whether we would all ditch it or not. I think we debated it for about a half hour and it was clear (at least to me) that it was going to be difficult to hold everyone together, even if we wanted to (and I wasn’t sure I wanted to ditch a final anyways). So I clearly stated that I was going to take the exam, and work hard on it, and that everyone else should do the same. Then I left. AFAIK everyone took the final.

        But now that I’ve told that story it should probably wreck my credibility with everything else lol.

      • BrianB says:

        Don’t know if anyone is still reading this but a syllabus for a Yale psych course was produced named “Perceptions” and an incident very similar to the one described by Carson regarding the test was not only proven, but one of the promoters of it interviewed, who largely corroborated Carson’s story.
        Additionally his story about the attempted stabbing of a friend was corroborated by his mother and another person who knew of the incident at the time it occurred.
        Any discrepancies in details twenty, thirty or more years later seem more likely to be the vagaries of memory than pathological lying. If you don’t think so go back through old letters and other documents of occurrences from years past you think you remember well and you’ll learn just how “lies” become embedded through misremembering.

        I make no claims for Carson’s qualifications for president nor any of his opinions, but labeling someone a pathological liar on so thin a reed, that upon further examination does not appear to have been a reed that even existed, is cheap, irresponsible, defamatory and just plain stupid given the history of slipshod reporting on these kind of things.
        That you have neither updated nor retracted a fairly execrable smear of Carson based on what appears to be specious grounds makes you look a good deal worse than Carson

  9. numeric says:

    My favorite Hillary story is after Vince Forster’s suicide, the Republicans eventually got hold of the phone records (in one of their investigation committees) and while the text of the conversations was of course not available the numbers called and the length of the conversations was. When Hillary was asked about these calls (there were about two hours of calls back and forth), she offered that they were because the conversationalists were “grieving”. Of course, a political animal such as Hillary and her cohorts were thinking damage control. But recall the WSJ editorials about the suicide, in that it was important to know the truth so that we could “properly grieve” Forster’s demise. And of course, “GOP Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), who while pursuing the Foster suicide theory had a watermelon shot in his backyard”.

    I think people need to remember that the environment Hillary and other politicians inhabit is a different ecosystem than most Americans, and that “credit-claiming” is, as every student of Mayhew knows, practically a requirement for elective office. And remember that Ron Brown did die in an airplane crash in Bosnia, so there were real dangers she was facing. Sniper fire was not one of them.

  10. miguel cervantes says:

    It would be easier to list when hillary has ever told the truth, not about the origin of her name; Edmund hillary was An obscure beekeeper. Not about how she cornered the cattlefutures,

  11. miguel cervantes says:

    Sheryl Atkinson proved there was no sniper fire in tuzla, there might have had hillary flown into tuzla twelve years earlier.

  12. BrianB says:

    Wow.
    I provide you a link to a story in which the source who concocted the quiz says Carson got 90% of the story right. Carson wrote with a ghostwriter his recollection of it twenty years later. The only real difference is Carson represented it as a situation arranged by his professor rather than a prank. We don’t know that Carson was even informed at the time he had been duped. We most certainly don’t know that twenty years after the fact that he remembered the details incorrectly rather than lying. Your assumption he did is indefensible.

    In the last few days, three times Carson has been accused of lying about events from his past, 40 or more years ago, and in each case corroborating evidence has turned up supporting everything he said, except for certain details which anyone could forget twenty or more years after the fact when he was recalling them after they occurred.

    Westmoreland honored MOH winners in Detroit in February not May.
    Technically, West Point offers appointments not scholarships even though the Army at the time did call them scholarships.
    The number of the Psych class was different than what he said it was, but it did exist.
    The quiz was a prank by a guy apparently representing himself as an aide to the professor not a test by the professor himself.

    The original claims were the class never existed and the quiz never occurred. After proof the class existed and the quiz occurred you correct the record by saying he is now an obvious “instrumental liar” rather than a pathological one.

    I’m surprised the Columbia Lions aren’t undefeated instead of the pathetic losers they are with such mobile goalposts on campus.

    It is contemptible to be caught making a complete ass of yourself by smearing someone and then “correct the record” by smearing him in a slightly different way. What kind of weenie ascribes dishonesty over the differences in small details remembered decades later after being shown your original claims were fatuous? Why not just demonstrate the common decency and humility to admit you were wrong and apologize?

    I don’t agree with a lot of what Carson believes either politically or theologically but if I disagreed with him on every single item in all areas of inquiry I’d find your back handed, specious correction and continued calumnies just as objectionable.

    You’re a coward. When caught repeating a lie and defaming the subject of the lie you chose trying to save your own face by continuing your smear in a slightly different form over doing the right thing.
    Shame on you; assuming you’re capable of sensing it.

  13. Harald K says:

    What I believe (but can’t substantiate), is that it’s about control. As long as people appear to be believing your outrageous lies, or at least don’t actively confront you or smirk at you, you feel safe. Then you know that with regard to those people at least, you can get out of trouble, or more generally get them where you want them.

    Even if a few people get upset or scornful at your lies, that’s OK, because then you have information about that too. Those people you can’t rely on directly to get your way. You’ll have to avoid them or work around them, but at least you’ll know who they are, and be prepared once the need to tell an actually important lie arises. Above all, you need to know where you have people.

    Sadly, it won’t work to just ask a pathological liar if this is accurate. Of the ones I’ve known (not too many fortunately), most seem to have picked up the habit at a young age in response to a really erratic upbringing, where maybe “figuring out where they have you” is a critical skill to pick up. But for all I know, some might have lied about their family situation too.

    • James says:

      Another group that I find interesting from a psychology and work perspective is the abhorrent self-promoters (also called subclinical psychopathy). You can do a google search on those terms and find the literature on it. Andrew mentioned that some lies are instrumental and that tends to be how these types of people operate. They lie about coworkers by denying their skills and abilities in order to make themselves and their political allies look better. They claim far more credit for successes than is realistic (telling everyone and anyone who will listen how great their work is and how crappy the work of their political competitors is) and far less responsibility for failures of their organization than is realistic. They are even willing to go so far as sabotage the work of others and somehow feel it is acceptable behavior. It is a rather bizarre way to behave and when engaged in at the group level manifests in a similar way to mobbing (another interesting literature).

      I would even argue that some organizational cultures fit this description and regularly select in or produce these types of individuals. Those unwilling or unable to adapt and to engage in this level of pathological behavior either leave or are forced out. This phenomena is not really surprising given what we know about human nature combined with the fact that Mckinsy-ites have been justifying this type of pathological level of competition since the days of Tom Peters’ book “In Search of Excellence” (an otherwise great book).

      The bizarre thing is that these people are often typically honest in other areas of their lives. Somehow they are able to rationalize the destruction of others jobs and careers as fair game in the workplace. Some even take pleasure in it and that is where it starts to bleed from the sub-clinical to the clinically pathological in that empathy for their targets is entirely absent and their destruction is embraced with a type of glee. It is tempting to argue that this is not pathological behavior in that it is instrumental, but I would argue that an absence of empathy has such a destructive path that it should be considered as such.

      A really interesting question is whether or not people who head down this path are able to change the way they think and behave. Like most behavioral change it would likely be quite difficult, but I think many would be able to. Though there are also likely many who take far too much pleasure in the pain of others to even want to change.

      • James says:

        Another way this manifests at a managerial level is via reward and punishment tactics in which political allies are rewarded and non-conformers punished by assigning them tasks far below their abilities and gleefully hammering people who challenge their abusive supervision. When they are not able to safely retaliate, they will find political allies to take over the tasks for them.

        I know this must sound horrible to people who do not work with such people nor in such cultures, but it is far more common than you might think.

      • Andrew says:

        James:

        Yes, I’ve dealt with several of this type (instrumental liars, but the sort who tell more lies than one might think they would need to tell) at work over the years. It does seem that willingness to lie gives these people a tactical advantage and even a strategic advantage in that, knowing that they will be able to lie, they can get into situations that the rest of us might avoid. Kinda like the way in which you might be more likely to walk around a bad neighborhood at night, if you were carrying a gun. And I’ve also seen pre-emptive lies, in which someone will maliciously tell tales even when there seems no reason to do so, just to lay the groundwork for future lies if necessary.

        I find it unpleasant to deal with these people. But I console myself by thinking that, while I’m spending my time on research and communication and teaching and scientific exploration, they’re obsessed with figuring out what to say to whom, figuring out how to manipulate the rules, etc. Some of these people do seem to enjoy this; others seem to be doing it with a sort of grim determination.

        • James C. Whanger says:

          Andrew:

          The pre-emptive aspect is an interesting one. For the aberrant self-promoters, it is not even necessarily a lie, but it is the pre-emptive poisoning of the well with information that is unrelated to the job. So, they might start casually mentioning the divorces, or problems at home, or kids, or any number of things about their competitors unrelated to the job in order to increase theirs and their allies chances to move up the ladder, gain more funding, better assignments, pay, etc. It’s the ‘9 minutes of Trump trashing Carson’ phenomenon.

          It is best if you can ignore it, but sometimes when it is directly affecting you, you do not have any other choice than to confront it head on.

        • James C. Whanger says:

          Another thing that emerges from the ‘mobbing’ within pathological cultures like this is that when silly policies against harassment get in the way, the truly pathological move to indirect methods of harassment and secretive ways of poisoning the well of their coworkers.

      • James C. Whanger says:

        sic_1: abhorrent should be aberrant.
        sic_2: phenomena should be phenomenon.

        Before the first cup of coffee was half finished.

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