During my research into deception and nonverbal communication, I discovered a small population of people I would come to refer to as “natural liars”. These individuals, while gifted with various skill-level, all had the remarkable ability to control their facial expressions of universal emotions nearly (and, for some, completely) flawlessly.
Natural liars are people who lie easily and with great success. Natural liars know about their ability, and so do those who know them well. When looking at their past, the behaviors may look like normal children lying –fooling their parents, teachers, and friends whenever they want to — but using this as practice to develop the confidence, soon feeling little or no deception detection apprehension.
The natural liars in my experiment did not differ from the others in their scores on a variety of objective personality tests. Unlike psychopaths, however, the natural liars did not show poor judgment, nor did they fail to learn from experience. There was nothing anti-social in their make-up. Unlike psychopaths, they did not use their ability to lie to harm others.
Natural liars, highly skilled in deceit but not without conscience, should be able to capitalize upon their talent in certain professions—as actors, salesmen, trial lawyers, negotiators, spies, or diplomats.
The term pathological lying dates back to medical literature in 1891 by Anton Delbreuck. It refers to the chronic behavior of habitually or compulsively lying, often without a clear reason for doing so. While there is no current specific psychological diagnosis, it is a behavior that has been linked with a few different personality disorders (such as APD or BPD). It is also a term that has become popularized by the general public. While I do not dispute the existence of pathological liars and individual who are victims of self-deceit, it is difficult to establish (and has not been the focus of my research).
While natural liars are seemingly no different than the average person (apart from their skill in lying), the hallmark of psychopathy is persistent antisocial behavior and lack of empathy and remorse. A failure to feel any guilt or shame about one’s misdeeds is considered the mark of a psychopath (if the lack of guilt or shame pervades all or most aspects of his life). Experts disagree about whether the lack of guilt and shame is due to one’s upbringing or some biological determinants. Likewise, the terminology and diagnostic criteria for a variety of related disorders continues to evolve over time. Although there is no current psychological diagnosis titled “psychopathy”, the term is often used more broadly within the general public to refer to the series of traits mentioned above. What is agreed upon, however, is that neither guilt about lying nor fear of being caught will cause a person with these traits to make mistakes when they lie. Psychopaths would not be afraid of being caught and, thus, are more likely to fool an expert, or pass the polygraph.
This happened to Ann Rule, a former police officer, psychology student, and author of five books on serial killers when, in a horrifying coincidence, she found herself working with and becoming fast friends with a man named Ted Bundy. Fortunately for Rule, it wouldn’t be long until her new friend Bundy would be arrested, tried, and found guilty of the kidnap and murder of at least 36 women, some of which he committed during the time he worked with Rule. She would later go on to say that “Ted was such a manipulator, you never knew whether he was putting you on or not…The anti-social personality always sounds sincere, the facade is absolutely perfect. I thought I knew what to look for, but when I was working with Ted, there wasn’t one signal or giveaway.”
Are politicians psychopaths or natural liars?
It is tempting to accuse any political enemy known to have lied as having an anti-social, psychopathic personality. While I have no evidence to dispute that that is true in any or every case, I am highly suspicious of such judgments. Just as Nixon is a hero or villain depending upon one’s politics, so too can foreign leaders appear to be psychopathic or shrewd depending upon whether or not their lies further one’s own individual values. I will say, however, that I suspect it to be rare that a psychopath could survive in bureaucratic structures long enough to achieve a position of national leadership without faltering before getting caught or thrown out of office.
Both psychopaths and natural liars have the extraordinary ability to inhibit facial signals that portray their true feelings. My research has made clear why such an experienced natural liar or psychopath rarely makes mistakes when lying. However, the key word here is “rarely” — there are some clues to deceit that simply cannot be prevented because the person showing them isn’t aware they even occurred! These expressions, called micro expressions, often go undetected by the observer simply because these fleeting expressions are difficult to catch without some form of training.