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'I've learned my lesson': Santos speaks out amid calls for resignation
01:50 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

When Timothy Levine set out to write a book about deception in 2016, he wanted to include a chapter on one of its most extreme forms: pathological lying.

“I just couldn’t find any good research base on this,” said Levine, chair of the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Now, it seems it’s the only thing anyone wants to talk to him about.

“Santos has brought more reporters to me in the last couple of weeks than probably in the last year,” Levine said.

Santos, of course, is US Rep. George Santos, a Republican from Long Island who was recently elected to represent New York’s third congressional district.

In the months since his election, key claims from Santos’ biography – including where he earned his college degree, his employment at Citigroup and Goldman Sachs, an animal rescue group he says he founded and his Jewish religious affiliation – have withered under the scrutiny of reporters and fact-checkers. Now, he says, he doesn’t have a college degree; he wasn’t employed by Citigroup or Goldman Sachs; and the IRS has no record of his animal rescue group. He also says he never claimed to be Jewish, but rather he was “Jew-ish.”

Santos defended himself in media interviews in December, saying that the discrepancies were the result of résumé padding and poor word choices but that he was not a criminal or a fraud.

It’s not clear what is driving Santos’ statements.

But the story has given professionals who study lying in its most extreme forms a rare moment to raise awareness about lying as a mental disorder – one they say has been largely neglected by doctors and therapists.

“It is rare to find a public figure who lies so frequently in such verifiable ways,” says Christian Hart, a psychologist who directs the Human Deception Laboratory at Texas Woman’s University.

Psychiatrists have recognized pathological lying as a mental affliction since the late 1800s, yet experts say it has never been given serious attention, funding or real study. It doesn’t have its own diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM, the bible of psychiatry. Instead, it is recognized as a feature of other diagnoses, like personality disorders.

As a result, there’s no evidence-based way to treat it, even though many pathological liars say they want help to stop.

The standard approach to treating lying relies on techniques borrowed from cognitive behavioral therapy, which emphasizes understanding and changing thinking patterns. But no one is sure that this is the most effective way to help.

We don’t know necessarily what’s the most effective treatment,” said Drew Curtis, an associate professor of psychology at Angelo State University in Texas who studies pathological lying.

Curtis had someone offer to drive across the country to see him for treatment, which he says he wasn’t able to offer.

“So that’s the heartbreaking side of it for me, as a clinician: people that are wanting to help and can’t have the help,” Curtis said.

Longtime collaborators Curtis and Hart recently published a study laying out evidence to support the inclusion of pathological lying as a standalone diagnosis in the DSM.

Over the years, Hart said, almost 20 people have proposed definitions of pathological lying, but there’s very little overlap between them: “The only truly common feature is that these people lie a lot.”

Most lying is normal

The first thing to know about pathological or compulsive lying is that it is rare, Levine says. His studies show that most people tell the truth most of the time.

“These really prolific liars are pretty unusual,” said Levine, whose book about deception, “Duped,” was published in 2019.

Which isn’t to say that lying isn’t common. Most people lie sometimes, even daily. In his studies, people lied up to twice a day, on average.

Levine himself regularly lies at the grocery store when workers ask whether he found everything he was looking for. Since the Covid-19 pandemic began, that answer is almost always no, but he says yes anyway.

One of his students worked in a retail clothing store and regularly lied to people who were trying on clothes. Another – a receptionist – lied to cover for a doctor who was always running late.