What makes someone become a pathological liar?

From faking a terminal illness to assuming a different race, creating a 'false self’ is now easier than ever. But what drives a pathological liar?

A woman in America has faked her own kidnapping. Janet Brooks from Clermont in Florida called police to say she had been kidnapped in a car park and forced into the boot of a car. She was later found to have staged the whole thing in a bid to find out how much her boyfriend ‘cared’ about her and has been charged with filing a false report. But what drives someone to become a pathological liar? And why are women more likely to be pathological liars than men? Here’s what we wrote on the subject in Marie Claire’s September 2015 issue.

Blinking at the TV camera last year, Belle Gibson looked confused. ‘No, I didn’t [have cancer],’ the Australian food blogger admits. ‘But I thought that I did’. Meanwhile, 8,000 miles away in Washington, Caucasian Rachel Dolezal batted off question after question about her racial heritage. ‘I definitely am not white,’ she responded, appearing anxious as it was revealed that she’d been presenting herself as an African-American since 2004. A few states below in California, 29-year-old Denise Huskins was still dealing with accusations of faking her own kidnapping. And if you rewind the clock 12 years, who can forget Alicia Esteve Head, who pretended to be a survivor of 9/11 – and even ran her own online network for others who had lived through the attacks.

‘Statistically, women are more likely to become pathological liars than men,’ says Marc Feldman, author of ‘Playing Sick? Untangling The Web Of Munchausen Syndrome, Munchausen By Proxy, Malingering, And Factitious Disorder’. ‘It’s been suggested that it is because women have limited means of getting their needs met, expressing themselves or attracting attention. Unfortunately, lying about illness or victimisation is one way – albeit a poor way – of feeling like you’re resolving that.’

While Munchausen Syndrome refers specifically to faking an illness – and even going as far as seeking medical treatment for it – being a pathological liar is far broader, and tends to involve self-aggrandising lies about personal characteristics and experiences, ‘The internet definitely makes it easier for individuals to falsely claim victimization or illness,’ Feldman explains. ‘I’ve termed it “Munchausen by internet”, because with so many people on hand to give you attention, it can be very seductive to sit at your computer and tell tales to make you feel part of something.’

For Gibson and Dolezal, who are both estranged from their parents, unhappy childhoods appear to be at the root of their deceit. But Feldman believes that while that may explain their behaviour, it doesn’t excuse it. ‘In many cases involving pathological liars, their actions are very deliberate. If you look at Belle Gibson, her deception created a small empire, and was something she carried out very consciously,’ he says. ‘Whatever the psychology behind it, I believe that actions should have consequences. But ultimately, you can’t prosecute somebody for stealing your attention or sympathy.’

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