Casey Anthony docuseries and the complexity of pathological liars
It’s been 11 years since Casey Anthony was acquitted of murdering her daughter in a court case that garnered international attention reminiscent of the media frenzy that surrounded the O.J. Simpson trial. This week, Anthony shared her side of the story on-camera in a controversial new docuseries that labels her a “pathological liar,” a term that is often thrown around but is far more complex than many realize.
Pathological lying is not an official medical diagnosis, psychologists say. It’s informally used to describe someone who frequently lies without an obvious motivation, so much so that it seems instinctive, impulsive and pointless.
“Pathological lying isn’t just, ‘I’m lying a lot because I don’t want to be in trouble.’ They can lie about things that have little consequence to them and make up things for reasons that aren’t clear,” says Tracey Marks, a general and forensic psychiatrist with over 20 years of experience.
Anthony maintains her innocence throughout the course of “Casey Anthony: Where the Truth Lies,” stating she is a “convicted liar” but not a killer. (She was acquitted of murder and manslaughter charges but found guilty of lying to police in 2011).
“I did lie,” Anthony, now 36, says in the first episode. “But no one asked why.”
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Everybody lies. So what makes it pathological?
As many may remember, Anthony repeatedly provided false and contradictory information to police about being employed at Universal Studios, about a nanny kidnapping Caylee, about telling people her daughter was missing and about receiving a phone call from Caylee the day before she was reported missing.
Pathological lying is a colloquial phrase, but one study quantified it as telling five or more lies daily, every day, for longer than 6 months. The lies can be big or small, complex or vague. Regardless, pathological liars exhibit a persistent, almost lifelong tendency to lie with no clear purpose.
“We know that most people lie, because we don’t want to get in trouble. We don’t want to offend someone we care about or don’t want to cause an argument. Those are all very normal and common reasons we lie,” says Kati Morton, a licensed marriage and family therapist. “It becomes pathological when it’s so frequent that it becomes a trait.”
Contrary to popular belief, the lying is not always ill-intentioned. Andrea Bonior, a licensed psychologist and host of the “Baggage Check” podcast, says it’s typically a “strong urge,” rather than a conscious decision to manipulate others.
“It usually isn’t thought through or planned,” Bonior explains. In fact, most pathological liars aren’t good liars, she says, because they “don’t consider the consequences or repercussions.”
“They don’t say, ‘Oh, I shouldn’t do this because someone will know I’m lying and catch me.’ It’s more a force of habit and something they’re conditioned to do in-the-moment without thinking about it.”
Why do pathological liars lie?
Experts say it’s unclear what may cause someone to lie about even the most pointless issues. Some pathological liars embellish their stories in order to appear more interesting or to garner sympathy. Others may intentionally deceive others to get what they want.
The Anthony-focused docuseries repeatedly states she lied as a coping mechanism in order to deal with to years of alleged sexual abuse from her father. (Anthony’s father previously denied the allegations and did not respond for comment for the series).
“I lied to everyone because that was my whole life up to that point,” Anthony says through tears. “Acting like everything was OK but knowing nothing was OK… All of this is a reaction to trauma.”
Psychologists agree compulsive lying likely represents “a larger, more deep-rooted disturbance or dysfunction,” such as narcissistic personality disorder (lying for personal gain), borderline personality disorder (lying out of impulse) or social anxiety (lying to avoid social situations).
“There’s more individual variation in people’s habits than we realize,” Bonior says. “We like to put people in boxes and categorize them. That if they do something, it’s for a specific reason. But people are complex, and one person’s lying habit may come from an entirely different reason than somebody else’s.”
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Can pathological liars stop?
Like any behavioral habit, it’s hard for pathological liars to overcome an impulse. However with proper treatment and self-awareness, it is possible.
Common exercises in therapy focus on building trust and evoking empathy to help them recognize the pain their seemingly innocuous lies cause to others.
“It’s crucial for them to see the impact that their actions have on other people as well as themselves,” Marks says. “The lying can become so fluid that they may not even recognize when they’re telling the truth versus when they’re not, so part of the treatment would involve breaking the habit when they start slipping into storytelling mode.”
Morton adds that it can be difficult for loved ones to trust someone with a history of dishonesty. It takes time, typically years, to regain faith and restore relationships through actions rather than words.
“People can overcome pathological lying,” she says, “but only if they actually want to.”
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