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It’s no secret that everybody tells a fib once in a while, but some people get so adept at lying that it becomes second nature, potentially putting their personal and professional lives at risk of crumbling.
Pathological lying, clinically referred to as ‘factitious disorder’, is a condition marked by compulsive fabrications and a lack of remorse, usually to advance one’s career or social status.
Republican congressional newcomer George Santos — who has gone by Anthony Devolder, Anthony Zabrovsky, Kitara Ravache in the past — has come under fire for fabricating much of his resume, education, career, love life and family history.
Among Santos’ most egregious lies are that he is of Jewish heritage and that the 9/11 terror attacks ‘claimed my mother’s life’ – while his campaign website stated that she worked in the South Tower and fled her office in time, later dying of cancer.
Rep George Santos’ web of lies has already jeopardized his political career as fellow New York Republicans call for his resignation. There is no suggestion that Mr Santos suffers from any of these traits
He also said that his mother was Jewish and that his Jewish maternal grandparents escaped the Holocaust by moving to Brazil.
But genealogy records show that his maternal grandparents were Brazilian-born Catholics. He also lied that four of his employees died in the horrific Pulse nightclub shooting.
Dr Drew Curtis from Angelo State University in San Angelo, Texas, and an expert in the psychology of pathological lying, told DailyMail.com: ‘With pathological lying, usually the lying causes more problems in their life, so they’re losing their jobs or losing family. [There’s] real impairment of functioning and they don’t like the fact that they’re doing it… but it usually is serving their career and their life.’
Even the most jaded voters and public figures in Washington are shocked by the extent of the deception, which to many is part and parcel of politics these days. Mr Santos’ lies have catapulted him to mainstream fame, becoming the object of ridicule on late-night comedy talk shows.
But a pattern of compulsive lying is not harmless fodder for comedians. It has a psychological underpinning.
Research indicates that pathological lying can be not only a mask for insecurity but also a defense mechanism.
Many people lie to protect themselves from an unpleasant situation or conflict.
This is often evident in children who lie to ensure they don’t get into trouble or avoid unpleasant consequences or punishment.
Others lie compulsively to get ahead financially and professionally, such as by inflating their accomplishments. In fact, 13 percent of people think of themselves as pathological liars, or say that others consider them to be pathological liars.
Compulsive lying could indicate that the person doing it has endured emotional trauma or has a history of being neglected; it could stem from severe insecurity, or even a mental or mood disorder, experts say.
Munchausen’s syndrome, for instance, is a psychological condition marked by pathological lying, pretending to be ill or deliberately producing symptoms of illness in themselves in order to be the center of attention and garner sympathy.
Dr Curtis said: ‘One of the ways that that disorder comes about is that the lying is reinforced, we give it attention.
‘So if someone lies about being sick or lies about any absurd made-up things, we give it more attention. And that attention can be reinforcing for the behavior.’
Reinforcing a pattern of compulsive lying can mean something as innocuous as reporting on the absurdity of the lies. To many people, any press is good press. If the lie impresses someone or garners sympathy, that behavior will be encouraged.
Dr Curtis and his research partner Dr Christian Hart, a Texas Woman’s University professor, argue that factitious disorder should be designated as its own diagnosis in psychology.
They argue that it leads to clinically significant impairment of functioning in social, professional, or other areas, causes distress, and poses a risk to the person lying or others around them.
Classifying it as its own psychological diagnosis would also open the door to more treatment options such as cognitive behavioral therapy and insurance coverage.
Dr Curtis said: ‘Some of lying is predicting a future, you’re predicting, if I lie now, it will spare this person negative feelings or it will gain me some impression. But some people that lie, even pathological liars, they’ll say in the moment they lied because it relieved some anxiety they felt.’
Drs Curtis and Hart are experts in the psychology behind pathological lying. They argue that the condition should be considered a psychological diagnosis in and of itself rather than a facet of a personality disorder due to the serious impacts it has on people’s lives
‘If there’s no distress or remorse, it could look like psychopathy or antisocial personality disorder. Someone lies for their own personal gain.’
Dr Curtis and Dr Hart also posit that a true pathological liar maintains that pattern for six months at a time.
Mr Santos has embellished many aspects of his life since his first run for Congress in 2020.
Dr Hart told the Washington Post: ‘In one study, we found that low self-esteem was one of the strongest personality predictors of someone’s tendency to lie — and so this pervasive sense of being inadequate and worrying that you’re not going to measure up.’
‘On the other hand, we conducted other research that suggested that having kind of a dark, manipulative personality also is associated with high levels of lying. These people see everyone is a pawn in their game, and they are happy to manipulate people to get exactly what they want.’
George Santos’ lies are putting his political career in peril. He has resigned from his committee assignments in the House of Representatives amid public pressure and members of his own party are calling for his resignation.
In an environment where stretching the truth is second nature, Congressman Santos is an extreme case, and his professional survival hangs in the balance.