On average, we tell 1.6 lies a day. Researchers say they help maintain some sort of social cohesion. But what happens when your lies snowball out of control? You could a be a compulsive liar like Fraser, Shaun or Amy.
Fraser is in his twenties, has a full-time job and is a self-confessed compulsive liar.
“If you say a lie with enough confidence most people are going to believe you,” he says.
On average, Fraser reckons he lies between 10 to 20 times a day, and sometimes he doesn’t even realise he is lying.
Last weekend, when he was swimming laps, he told an older woman that he had a painful injury from tearing his ACL, which again was completely false – he was just swimming for exercise.
“I was thinking what are you doing that’s bullshit, but I just kept going with this story.”
Fraser reckons the reason he lies is often to try and impress people, get sympathy, gratitude or to appear more interesting – but also to try and escape social situations.
“The biggest lie for me would be the heinous kinds of lie that someone had died and no one questions that… and saying this with enough confidence means you can probably get away with it which is pretty horrible when I think about it.”
He’s had five close friends or relatives “die” recently to help him escape from unpleasant company – except that none of those people existed.
“It’s got to obviously be someone you don’t know so you can make up what happened… they are completely made up people.”
He recently told a woman he met at his local bar that he was an aerospace engineer when he actually works with people with disabilities.
“Luckily, she didn’t really know what that was, and I knew a bit about it,” he says.
But after Hack asked Fraser to write a list of how many lies he was telling a day, his bravado about lying took a back seat.
“This whole process has been really revealing to me it hasn’t made me feel very good,” he says.
“Maybe that’s what people should do is write down their lies every day.”
Why do we lie?
We asked you to write in about your experiences with compulsive liars and … we got quite a response.
- I was in a three-year relationship with a compulsive liar. There were definitely a few elements of social media that helped in catching him out such as timestamps on messages or if he said he was somewhere but Facebook said otherwise.
- I’ve caught my sister out pretending to have cancer. We don’t talk to her anymore.
- A family friend of ours faked a pregnancy – she said she was having twins and she ended up being “pregnant” for about 50 weeks.
- My ex-boyfriend lied about where he worked, his education, his car and his house. He said he’d lived in London for a year after high school and gave me detailed stories of what he did while he was there. He had never been.
- My old band manager told everyone he knew that he had something like 7 PhDs, knew 40 different languages and that he knew how to compose orchestral arrangements.
Researching the reasons humans lie has almost become an obsession for distinguished professor Tim Levine from Alabama University in Birmingham who has studied deception for 20 years.
He’s come up with the four main reasons why people lie: to cover up a mistake or transgression such as cheating, for financial gain, for personal gain or to get out of situations.
He also says teenagers tell almost the same number of lies as adults.
In his studies, he found 59 per cent of people aged 13-17 told one to five lies a day and 15 per cent lied more than fives times a day. In the 18-44 age bracket, 45 per cent of the respondents lied one to five times a day, while 9 per cent lied more than five times a day.
“What I think is most interesting about deception is that almost all popular beliefs seem to be wrong,” he says.
“For example, almost everywhere people say liars won’t look you in the eye but there is nothing to support that.”
“People think they’re much better than detecting lies than they really are, and think they’re much better at detecting lies from people they know well but that doesn’t seem to be the case either, so common sense doesn’t take you very far in the world of deception.”
Shaun, who asked us not to use his real name, found himself in a vicious web of lies when he tried to date a girl his parents disapproved of.
“I was lying to my parents and family even extended family,” he says.
“I would lie to my friends because they might know my family and tell them and sometimes I would lie to my colleagues and I began thinking my lies were real and I began to start believing my own lies.”
It got to the stage where Shaun would be creating fake documents – such as swimming training notices and invitations for his friend’s parties – just so he could spend time with his secret girlfriend.
“I would change the dates, change the time and change location and really cater it around that weekend if it was on a public holiday so it was believable,” he says.
But it was social media that provided the biggest risk in exposing his lies and revealing the truth.
“I found social media one of the hardest parts of lying because there is always going to be someone around you and even someone in the crowd that you know is a friend of a friend that can always tag you in something,” he says.
After a year-and-a-half of living a double life, Shaun was caught out by his parents when they spotted his car in a driveway not far from their house – when he was mean to be at a swimming training camp.
It wasn’t pretty, and his covert relationship quickly ended. He was kicked out of home and his parents refused to believe anything he said for months afterwards.
“I realised I couldn’t do it anymore,” he says.
“I was flat and I couldn’t tell lies and I knew my parents would never believe me again so there was no way I couldn’t even see her on the sly.”
In hindsight, Shaun says keeping the lies going created a huge amount of stress for himself and warns others against it.
“I would never go back to that ever again, I would never recommend going into that lying web over and over again because once you do it’s very toxic and poisonous to get out of unless everything crumbles around you.”
What is a compulsive liar?
There is very little research about compulsive or pathological liars, but it is not considered a psychiatric disorder. It can, however, be a sign of bigger mental disorders such as anxiety or borderline personality disorder.
Dr Katie Treanor is an Australian psychologist who wrote a PhD on compulsive lying, also known as pseudologia fantastica.
During her research she found people who constantly lied weren’t doing it for a thrill, but more as a form of protection. They might also have a very low self esteem, feel worthless or rejected.
“These people had a really poor sense of self and their true self wouldn’t be good enough,” she says. “They would therefore tell these lies in a way of bolstering their image.”
She also found that compulsive lying provided a way for people to run away from their reality, rather than face it.
It was during high school that Amy, who has also asked to not use her real name, started to notice her obsession with lying. The more she lied, the more she liked it.
“[The lying] wasn’t the thrill for me, it was the telling of the lie, it was more the fact that I then got a response to it so at the beginning it was gossip and I was talked about,” she says.
When she told people at school about the time she lost her virginity, rumours quickly spread across the school despite the fact she had very little sexual experience.
“I made up everything, I made up the name and everything about this fictitious person and yeah that person actually never existed.”
Amy says at the worst part of her lying she was telling upwards of 20 to 30 lies a day.
“Pretty much everything out of my mouth was a lie,” she says.
But her lying was never to manipulate people, it was a way to cope with her anxiety and extremely low self esteem.
“When I got caught out I would start with another lie to cover a lie,” she says. “Or I twisted it so it could resemble a part-truth.”
As Amy’s self esteem plummeted, so did her ability to care about the repercussions of her lies.
“Later on when I got caught out, when it got worse I didn’t even care. I was in a low point and I didn’t care if people didn’t like me. I wanted to feel something.”
That was 10 years ago and now as a new mother Amy says she can’t remember the last time she bent the truth.
“The whole purpose behind it was for my own self satisfaction and to make me feel better about the person I was.
“I believed if I lied I would be perceived as someone who was better than who I was.”