George Santos and The Science of Pathological Lying

by John Hanc
February 28, 2023 at 11:05 AM UTC

Pathological lying is not an official diagnosis, but maybe it should be.

Clinical Relevance: The DSM does not list pathological lying as a mental disorder. Should it?

  • New York Congressman George Santos’ propensity for lying has sparked a debate about what it means to be a pathological liar.
  • Some experts suggest that “pathological lying” should be considered a mental disorder though it is not officially considered one.
  • When a chronic liar tells an untruth, the amygdala of the brain does not react as strongly compared to someone who does not spin tall tales on a regular basis.
  • Although society accepts a certain amount of fibbing, experts are divided on whether or not it is ever OK.

Recently, The New Yorker published a cartoon depicting George Santos in a mock advertisement for a service aimed at an audience that, most Americans would agree, the first-term Congressman from New York has admitted he is well-qualified to address.

ATTENTION, LIARS

Do you like to lie? 

Do you feel like the gatekeeping elites are preventing you from lying?

Maybe it’s time to fight back!

The headline of the cheeky, comic book-style ad (drawn by Barry Blitt), purports to be hawking Santos’ online “Fibinars,” in which liars can learn how to free themselves “from the tyranny of the truth.”

Research psychologist Christian L. Hart of Texas Woman’s University in Denton, Texas chuckled at this. He said he has heard a few good George Santos jokes in the past few months. And he’s been asked a lot of questions about the politician, even though he’s never met the man and per the Goldwater Rule, would never presume to diagnose him from afar.

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Hart and his research partner, psychologist Drew Curtis of Angelo State University in San Angelo, Texas, are experts in lying. It’s suddenly a hot topic thanks, in part, to the confirmed revelations that Santos spun substantial swaths of his resume from whole cloth, and told copious untruths about virtually everything in his background during his successful bid to win the congressional seat for Long Island, New York.

Before the Santos story broke, “I’d get about two requests a year for interviews. Over the past two months, I’ve done thirty,” Hart told Psychiatrist.com. Recently he has appeared, often with Curtis, on CNN, Fox News, and CBS. He’s been interviewed by the Washington Post and Politico.

“They’re mostly interested in slapping a label on George Santos,” Hart said.

“Pathological liar” is the label that seems to stick. But that might be a problematic term when it’s used for someone like Santos, Hart said. 

Pathological or Prolific?

“That term ‘pathological liar’ is used very broadly in our culture,” said Hart. “What people generally mean when they say that is that the person is lying a lot.”

Lying does seem epidemic these days. In their 2020 study on lying, Hart and Curtis found that 83 (or 13 percent) of 623 participants indicated that they or others considered themselves to be pathological liars, which was defined as telling “numerous” lies every day for at least six months.

However, there was one tendency that the scientists identified among these serial liars. “Our research shows that there’s remorse in pathological liars,” said Curtis. 

“That’s one of the difficult things about Santos. Is there remorse present?” Hart asked, noting that he could not provide a clinical opinion on the matter. 

For the record, the congressman has admitted that he has a propensity to massage the truth. “I’ve been a terrible liar,” he said, while defending parts of his record in an interview with CNN’s Piers Morgan

A Means to an End

Terrible, yes. But also perhaps, terribly shrewd.

“The types of things he lies about seem very selective and intentional,” Hart speculated. “The intent is to convince people that he’s someone he’s not. I would describe him as someone who’s lying like Elizabeth Holmes or Bernie Madoff have done. They were both lying in order to get something very tangible that they wanted. In their cases, financing.”

In Hart’s opinion, Santos seemed to be crafting stories to make a stronger case for his election. His prevarications were designed to show that, despite his relative youth, he had the qualifications and experience necessary to serve in congress. (Santos claims he is 34 years old.)

Still, the mendacious falsities that pour forth from the freshman congressman’s mouth have continued piling up ever since The New York Times began fact-checking his bio.

Proof exists (and he has admitted) that he has lied about:

  • His college education
  • Where he has worked
  • Owning a number of rental properties
  • Being Jewish
  • Being a star athlete
  • His mother dying on 9-11
  • His wealth
  • His investors

Under a known pseudonym, Anthony Devolder, he even claimed to have appeared on the Disney show “Hannah Montana” as a child.

Clinical Presentation of Lying

Many would consider the very fact that a congressional candidate even had a widely used online alias as a glaring red flag. But it might also raise questions about the psychology and pathology of lying. If there is a purpose behind someone’s fulsome fibbing—no matter how nefarious or deceitful—does that make it pathological?

Meaning, is it indicative of some mental health disorder?

The DSM is silent. It does not list pathological lying as a disorder, though Hart and Curtis argue that maybe it should. Curtis offered some criteria.

“For the lying to be pathological, it has to have high frequency,” he said. “Meaning, they’re telling lots of lies, and for a lengthy time period, six months or longer. Like any other psychopathology, it’s not only an excess but duration.” 

Another important criteria: Does all the lying impair the liar’s behavior? 

That’s where it gets a bit murky. “Sometimes, it doesn’t impair the function of the prolific liar,” Curtis said. “It might actually be to their advantage.”

Also, he pointed out, as a society “we’re willing to tolerate liars.” An example he gave is that of someone selling used cars, a person who has a commission to gain by exaggerating the condition of that 2002 domestic sedan with 200,000 miles on it.

While they might not like it, most consumers do expect some puffery from a used car salesperson. Few would call the car seller a “pathological” liar. An occupational fibber? Maybe, said Hart. And, he wondered, should the same logic apply to someone who is a member of Congress?  

Lying in the Brain

What does seem clear to Hart is that the more one lies, the easier it becomes to lie, or at least to justify it. Research has shown that when people engage in lying, one of the areas of that brain that becomes activated is the amygdala, the known neural center of fear. But, a 2016 study found that those who lied frequently, seemed to become more desensitized towards it. 

“We see that the more people lie, the less the amygdala `lights up,’ so to speak,” Hart said. “So there’s a level of habituation at the neurological level in which people just feel less anxious and presumably more inclined to lie.”

“When we lie for personal gain, our amygdala produces a negative feeling that limits the extent to which we are prepared to lie,” said the author of the 2016 study, Tali Sharot of University College London, at the time of its publication. However, she noted, “this response fades as we continue to lie, and the more it falls the bigger our lies become. This may lead to a ‘slippery slope’ where small acts of dishonesty escalate into more significant lies.” 

Given the prodigious and outrageous list of untruths he has copped to, Hart said he can’t help but wonder whether, at this point, Santos’s’ amygdala just yawns every time he emits another whopper.

Of course, some would argue that, as with used car salespeople, a little lying from politicians is to be expected. Others would expand that to all human interaction. Is it so bad to play fast and loose with the facts every once in a while? And here’s where Curtis and Hart—who have collaborated on two books, numerous journal articles, and dozens of conference presentations—have differing opinions. 

Is Some Lying OK?

The former has adopted a policy of radical honesty. “My take is ‘let’s tell the truth, and work through the awkward situations that may develop as a result,’” Curtis said. “Many times it’s through those difficult conversions that we build deeper and better relationships.”

Hart, on the other hand, believes in the value of the “white lie.”

“I think there are occasions where a little deception is understandable,” he countered. “If I’m bored at your dinner party, I don’t want to tell you I’m leaving because I’m bored, and chances are you don’t want to hear that.” 

Both agree that when it comes to lying, it appears as if someone like Santos has gone far beyond resume embellishment or the telling of tiny untruths in order to avoid hurting someone’s feelings. So if not pathological, how should we categorize Santos and his propensity for deception?

Prolific liar,” Curtis mused. “Or maybe big liar?”

Many Americans would probably agree that “big liar” has the right ring to it for Santos. But as to whether he’s a “pathological” liar, it’s hard to say without examining him and reaching a clinical conclusion. For sure, we need a better definition of pathological lying, Hart said. 

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