Is former Harvard student Adam Wheeler a pathological liar, or just a liar?

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May 20 2010 6:41 PM

True or False

Is Adam Wheeler a pathological liar? 

Adam Wheeler. Click image to expand.
Adam Wheeler

Former Harvard student Adam Wheeler pleaded not guilty Tuesday to charges that he lied on his college application. Among other fabrications, he claimed that he attended Phillips Academy, spent a year at MIT, and got a 1600 on his SAT. The prosecutor said that Wheeler "lived a life of lies and deceit" and that "if it wasn't for his parents' intervention, Mr. Wheeler's pathological behavior wouldn't have stopped." What makes someone a pathological liar rather than just a regular liar—and does Wheeler fit the bill?

No. While there's no official definition for pathological lying, also known as mythomania or pseudologia fantastica, psychiatrists generally use the term to mean telling falsehoods regularly but for no practical reason, and often in the form of over-the-top, complex narratives. (As opposed to minor lies told occasionally to grease social interactions.) Wheeler certainly lied frequently and boldly—he claimed on an internship application that he spoke Old English, Classical Armenian, and Old Persian and had authored or co-authored six book manuscripts. But insofar as the fabrications were meant to get him into college and advance his career, they were also practical and thus not pathological in the usual sense.

Pathological lying isn't included in the current version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and thus "pathological liar" is not an official diagnosis. Rather, it's a type of behavior that psychiatrists usually discuss in connection with other conditions. Malingering, for example—faking physical or psychological problems in order to get special attention or financial compensation or to avoid work or military service—may involve pathological lying. Same with narcissistic personality disorder, in which a person tells exaggerated, often patently ludicrous stories about himself in order to gain attention.

Several other mental conditions included in the DSM resemble pathological lying but have slightly different characteristics. Confabulation, for example, is when you suffer from selective amnesia and make up lies to fill the gaps between real memories. People who suffer from borderline personality disorder may lie all the time, but only because they actually don't know who they are and have a difficult time distinguishing truth from falsehood. Ganser Syndrome is a dissociative disorder that often results in habitual lying.

The term pseudologia fantastica was originally coined by German physician Anton Delbrück in 1891 after he studied the case of a woman who wandered through Europe pretending alternately to be a Romanian princess, Spanish royalty, and a poor medical student. Since then, there have been few major studies on pathological lying. One early survey conducted in 1915 concluded that about 1 percent of its 1,000 subjects lied excessively. A study conducted in 1988 found that the average age of onset is 16, and 22 is the average age of discovery. A 2005 study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry found that pathological liars have more "white matter"—cells that carry signals to other parts of the brain—in their frontal cortex than other people. In other words, they're especially good at thinking on their feet.

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Explainer thanks Charles Dike of Yale University and Robert Schug of the UCLA School of Medicine.

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Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.