There are other types of liar, however, who we don’t forgive so easily. We give a hard time to dissemblers; experts at twisting words, judiciously omitting information, creating ambiguity and crafting deniability. Certain jobs seem to demand this skill: estate agents, lawyers and politicians all rely on it.
The politicians who tell us, truthfully, that we need to make hard choices tend not to be the ones who become popular, whereas the ones who tell us we can have our cake and eat it fare far better with voters.
Even less defensible are compulsive liars, who cannot help but tell fantastical whoppers, and constantly regale people with stories that plainly aren’t true. Compulsive liars have become addicted to self-glorifying fibs because they are deeply insecure. They get a kick purely out of telling a lie. They usually hurt nobody but themselves – unless by happenstance they end up in positions of real power.
Pathological liars (sometimes called psychopathic liars) are a different breed again; colder and more calculating. They lie with specific, self-serving goals, and are regarded by those unfortunate enough to cross their paths as manipulative, cunning and egotistical – usually after they’ve got what they wanted. They can be charming and credible, and wreak great damage on their victims.
A few years ago, neuroscientists carried out a study on the brains of pathological liars, and constructed a questionnaire designed to test for the condition. Their subjects came from the books of a temporary employment agencies in Los Angeles, as pathological liars find it difficult to hold down long term jobs. The short term gains from their lies usually catch up with them, and they live itinerant lives, constantly moving on to new workplaces, new relationships, new prey.
The neuroscientists discovered that the brains of pathological liars have more ‘white matter’. Loosely speaking, this is the area of the brain responsible for making quick connections. The more white matter, the faster a person’s stream of thought and the higher their verbal fluency – enhancing their ability for manipulation. The brains of pathological liars are fed by a constant supply of inventive untruths.
Previous studies had revealed that psychopaths also have low activity in the emotional parts of their brains – and thus little or no empathy for the effect their lies have on others. Pathological liars, in other words, have powerful equipment for fibbing, and no compunction whatsoever about doing so, making them particularly dangerous.
We might all lie, but at least the majority of us have the grace to feel a little bit bad about it, even when it comes from a good place.