Professor Stoffels, are people who spread lies sick? No, not necessarily. Lies are part of normal life. It would be inhumane to always stubbornly stick to the truth.
But some lies are no longer part of normal life. There is the phenomenon of pathological lying, which was first described by the psychiatrist Anton Delbrück in 1891. In the professional world it is called “Pseudologia Fantastica”. But on the other hand, there is also calculated lying, for example for the sake of an advantage. There are all shades between both types of lying, pathological lying and calculating lying.
As a psychiatrist, in addition to depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, you primarily deal with pathological lies. When do those affected come to you? It is always something special when a pathological liar, a so-called pseudologist, seeks psychotherapeutic treatment. As a rule, fraudsters come to my practice not because they are suffering, but because they have been exposed or have become entangled in a web of untruths.
Why do they lie? Pathological lying is always an escape from a reality that is experienced as painful into a fantasy. By lying, pseudologists remove themselves from circumstances that they cannot or only with difficulty cope with.
So do people lie to get out of a world they can't stand? That's how it is. The real world is painful and they want to escape it. Imagine a small child who feels badly treated by his parents. He's lying in bed in the evening and then the idea comes to him: Oh, maybe I'm not my parents' child! And another family is already imagining it together. That's not a lie, it's a fantasy, but it shows how people flee from a reality in which they experienced deprivation, in which they were not recognized.
Now, many of us are neglected in childhood, and yet later on we do not invent stories that harm ourselves and others. Are pathological liars the creative ones among neglected children? Absolutely. I refer to the writer Karl May, who was convicted of fraud. As a young man, he assumed various identities, sometimes posing as a postman and sometimes as a police officer. Later, when he no longer channeled his creative potential into lying, Karl May became a great novelist.
We are particularly concerned with one case at the moment: the musician Gil Ofarim admitted before the Leipzig district court on Tuesday that he had told an untruth. He had accused a hotel manager of anti-Semitic discrimination. Why does a person hold on to a false claim for two years, which sooner or later has to be exposed? As a psychotherapist, in such a case I would first check what the reason for the fraud is. Maybe it's about an insult, about the feeling: I'm not being respected. Perhaps his fictional story is intended to secure recognition and sympathy for him.
In the video, in which Gil Ofarim identifies himself as the victim, he complains that one person after another was skipped ahead of the check-in line. He obviously felt disrespected. I have observed that liars today like to portray themselves as victims. In the past they posed as nobles or later as factory owners. But the invention of being a victim has been around for a long time, and it has great suggestive power - especially for those who are prone to cheating. Sometimes I even notice that patients long to be trauma victims because then they can hope for care.
What do you read in this development? This is a sociological question that urgently needs clarification: Why is it that the earlier hero narratives, as I call them, are being replaced by victim narratives? I remember the case of a wheelchair user who was attacked; someone had scratched a swastika into her cheek. This caused great outrage. It was later discovered that she had caused the injury herself. But because of her victimhood, she initially found extraordinary recognition.
Gil Ofarim has also received extraordinary recognition for his claim that he was subjected to anti-Semitic discrimination. Yes, he has reportedly received worldwide attention. Through no other statement would he have received as much care and recognition and attention as through this story.
What kind of personality do pathological liars have? As a rule, they have unstable self-confidence, they have no ego strength and no self-confidence. The feeling of not being worth anything and not being recognized gives rise to the desire for a different reality. You feel the temptation to reinvent yourself. In the 1920s, a Zurich psychiatrist treated a pathological liar and introduced him in one of his lectures. This man had claimed to be a doctor of philosophy and a doctor of law, and he had also claimed to have been a flying officer. In the lecture he contritely admitted that he had been a liar. He didn't do a doctorate, he was never an officer, just a simple infantryman. He continued to talk about the privations in the trenches until everyone was completely moved. It later turns out that he had never been to the war. So he switched from the hero to the victim narrative and initially escaped all accusations in this way.
I have to think of Claas Relotius, a journalist who invented stories on a large scale for “Spiegel”. He obviously touched his bosses and the readers too. In the interests of self-awareness, it would be worth reading his stories again, because they spoke to us. Claas Relotius has been awarded prizes for his contributions, and they have appeared in a newspaper that places value on only working with facts.
Do you mean that we as a society are reflected in the stories of those who lie? Yes, we look in a mirror, exactly. In the Ofarim case, too, the people who believed him would have to ask themselves: Why did we follow this story so quickly? Did we believe Gil Ofarim because his narrative corresponded to our worldview or our current interests? Why weren't we skeptical? Many people now have to ask themselves these self-critical questions, but in my opinion this is not happening.
If the self-esteem of those who lie is so porous, can they even get out of their lying pattern and be cured? Psychotherapy cannot fundamentally change a personality. But you can talk to the person affected about their personality and see how you can deal with the problematic parts of their personality in new ways. And I always point out that pathological liars have amazing creative potential that should ideally be exploited in a different way. If the person affected receives attention in psychotherapy because of their personality, then they may be able to use their creative potential differently.
But your anecdote from your Swiss colleague doesn't give you any courage in this regard: The pathological liar had the attention of the entire lecture hall and still slipped from one lie to the next. Yes, you have to look closely: Is this perhaps a new lie, a new fantasy? Is the patient really a sick liar, or is he just pretending to be sick? Does he want to save and apologize for himself through the new self-definition as sick?
Do men lie more often than women? I can't say that, a quantitative study would have to clarify that. However, I notice that in my psychotherapeutic practice there are more men than women who lie pathologically.
Why do people stick to a lie for two years, knowing that one day it will be exposed? The pathological liar has a great power of suggestion. He can influence other people, but also himself. He believes his story. It's a mix of fraud and self-deception. A pseudological fraudster can believe in his own lies over a long period of time, which is why he appears so convincing.
How can we find a good way of dealing with liars in everyday life? I think we have a duty to first believe the other person and trust them. I do it that way too. However, we should not allow ourselves to be denied the freedom to question what has been said. But first of all, we need to trust our fellow human beings, even if there is a suspicion that they are lying. I always say: believe critically and doubt empathetically.