Katy Ward 11th December 2018
“There’s no better rush than tricking someone into believing a random bit of bullshit you’ve pulled out of your arse just for the fun of it.”
This confession comes from an articulate thirty-something year-old woman downing her third glass of pinot grigio in a dingy Wetherspoons.
Let’s call her Madeline. This isn’t her real name, but the fake identity she has carefully cultivated for whenever she gets chatting to strangers in pubs or on buses.
“No matter how shitty the reality of my life might be, I get an instant adrenaline high from being someone else for five or 10 minutes,” she says. “She has the life I want — successful theatre critic, 10 years younger than me and engaged to a devilishly handsome heart surgeon.”
For most of us, white lies are an essential social tool to navigate everyday life and, according to research from 20th Century Fox, the average man lies six times a day, while women lie just three.
“The closer we are to someone, the more likely we are to lie to protect a person’s feelings,” says health psychologist Dr Susan Marchant-Haycox. “This is true of women — particularly when a man wants to know if his sexual performance was satisfying! Men tend to lie about themselves.”
I had a pretty happy childhood and plenty of kids have crappy things happen to them, but they don’t grow up to be like me
Madeline doesn’t recall any warning signs during her early childhood that she would eventually develop a taste for compulsive lying. “I told my parents the usual white lies all kids do — pretending I hadn’t broken something or stolen chocolates out of my brother’s advent calendar.”
Psychologically speaking, it seems her early behaviour was typical of this stage in child development. Children learn to lie when very young, reinforced by the “white lie” training not to hurt others’ feelings, says clinical forensic psychologist professor Mike Berry. But children may find it difficult to identify the occasions in which it’s correct to tell a white lie or begin to lie for their own benefit.
Then, when Madeline was nine, her childhood took a turn most people’s do not when her mother died suddenly of a massive stroke.
You’re probably thinking the reason I lie is obvious: a habit I developed to escape reality after my mother died, but I don’t want to let myself off the hook that easily
“I just wanted to pretend this wasn’t happening so I tried to hide from everyone and everything,” she says. “I didn’t want to be eternally labelled as ‘the girl whose mum died’.”
Lacking friends in the real world, she created a fantasy realm. Rather than having a single imaginary friend as many children do, Madeline dreamt up an entire crew of friends, and even went so far as to invent an imaginary husband for her future adult self.
“You’re probably thinking the reason I lie is obvious: a habit I developed to escape reality after my mother died, but I don’t want to let myself off the hook that easily. I had a pretty happy childhood and plenty of kids have crappy things happen to them, but they don’t grow up to be like me.”
From a psychological perspective, there can be any number of reasons a person turns to compulsive lying. According to Dr Marchant-Haycox, these individuals may be motivated by a desire to boost their self-esteem, gain power over others or enjoy the thrill of almost being exposed.
Asan adult, Madeline’s taste for escapist fantasy escalated into full-blown compulsive lying. During her early twenties she says, she was permanently single, racking up credit card debts and her career was at a dead end.
Some days, she’d arrive in the office full of tales of being whisked away to Paris by one of her rich and successful admirers or eating in Michelin-starred restaurants.
If you’re brazen enough, most people will fall for almost anything you tell them
“If you’re brazen enough, most people will fall for almost anything you tell them.”
Other times her motivation was to gain attention or sympathy. “One night, after a bottle of vodka, I called a casual acquaintance I secretly fancied at midnight sobbing hysterically. I told him I was being stalked by an ex who was obsessively in love with me.
“In reality, I’ve never been in a serious relationship and just get the odd shag from tossers on Tinder, but I’d have said anything to get the attention of the bloke I liked. I guess I thought he’d be intrigued by the notion I was irresistible to another man.”
The trick to maintaining such an elaborate system of lies is in the detail, she says. “If you’re going to pretend to have a stalker ex, make sure you give him a name, an occupation and know all the details of your relationship. How long were you together? Why did you break up? When?”
To be an effective liar, you need to have a good memory and the most practised liars will rehearse their stories, explains Dr Marchant-Haycox. A truly convincing fibber may attempt to control his or her non-verbal communication by avoiding blinking, fidgeting, touching the nose, stuttering or breaking eye contact.
When a friend confronted Madeline about her lies, she stepped up her deceit. She thanked her friend for being so supportive and insisted she’d started to see a counsellor. For an air of authenticity, she even gave this supposed therapist a name.
Like she had done as a child, she again retreated into a fantasy world — this time centred around her bogus doctor. “Whenever I have a problem in real life, I try to imagine the advice he might dispense if he were real. He’s basically an imaginary friend for thirty-something neurotics.”
Despite her complicated relationship with the truth, Madeline insists she is, in fact, a good person. She says she works hard, is devoted to her family and never intends to hurt anyone with her tall tales.
Although Madeline is not entirely unsympathetic, the same isn’t true of all compulsive liars. Psychologists often draw a parallel between compulsive liars and those who display psychotic tendencies. These individuals are apparently able to lie with such ease as they lack the typical range of human emotions.
The best liars tell you the truth but miss out the fact that they’ve killed 14 people or they’ve murdered a cat
Of more concern, says professor Berry, is the question of whether liars actually believe their own fantasies. Is is best to believe a story yourself in order to convince others?
“The best liars tell you the truth but miss out the fact that they’ve killed 14 people or they’ve have murdered a cat,” says professor Berry, who once worked on a serial killing case in which the perpetrator murdered a cat to prove he wasn’t an animal lover.
Yet, not all psychopaths and compulsive liars channel their talent for deception into sadistic or illegal activity, and many use their skills for a professional advantage, including poker players, undercover agents and even millionaire tycoons.
“You can train people to tell lies. Ask any politician!” he says.
At the end of our chat, Madeline asks what the experts have to say on the subject of compulsive lying. She listens intently as though she finds their words strangely seductive. “I’m pretty sure I’m not a psychopath, but I guess I should see a psychologist who exists somewhere other than my head.”
One final question. Is everything she has admitted in the past 30 minutes actually true? “For the most part, yes.” How can we believe her? “After all the years of lying, I actually get a rush out of confessing my sins, and I enjoy the idea of someone I know reading the article but not knowing it’s about me. It’ll be like I’ve fooled them again.
“Besides, if I were lying, you’d never know it.”
Katy Ward 11th December 2018