Ask a psychologist: Is George Santos a pathological liar?

An expert weighs in on what makes people lie, and whether it benefits politicians.

Rep. George Santos, fingertips touching, sits in his seat in the House looking watchful.
Rep. George Santos, R-N.Y., waits for the start of a session in the House chamber on Jan. 6. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

A flurry of questions emerged this week surrounding the campaign of the embattled freshman Rep. George Santos, R-N.Y., who has been caught fabricating many aspects of his life story, and has had to admit that he lied about his education, work history and personal life.

Just this week, new campaign disclosures filed with the Federal Election Commission suggest that at least $625,000 in campaign loans did not come from Santos’s personal funds, as he previously claimed. Questions remain as to where the funds did come from. His campaign has also raised suspicions by listing a bizarrely large number of expenses of between $199 and $199.99, which conveniently falls just below the $200 minimum for which the FEC requires a receipt.

In an attempt to address some of those questions, Santos’s campaign committee told federal regulators it had hired a new treasurer about those lingering questions. The person Santos claimed to have hired said he had declined the job.

Calls continue to grow from both sides of the aisle for the congress member’s resignation, while the Republican House leadership stands by Santos, recently seating him on two House committees. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy did say on Tuesday, however, that if the Ethics Committee finds that Santos broke the law, he will be removed from Congress.

“I think when we see that the leadership structure is willing to tolerate dishonesty, it probably does cause a pretty substantial reduction in trust of that leadership,” Chris Hart, professor of psychology and director of the Human Deception Laboratory and Psychological Science program at Texas Woman’s University, told Yahoo News. “I can't imagine that this is going to be anything but harmful to the public's trust in Congress that people like George Santos aren't being held accountable.”

The Santos saga has even inspired new legislation in Long Island's Nassau County, called the “G.E.O.R.G.E. Package.” Lawmakers there proposed a bill package that would require political candidates to undergo a background check and would make it a misdemeanor for lying about income, employment, education history or address.

“When we look at lying very broadly, everyone lies,” said Hart. But does it take a certain type of lying to be successful as a politician? Here’s what Hart explained to Yahoo News. (Some responses have been edited for length and clarity.)

Yahoo News: Why did Santos lie to the extent he did, when he was likely to get caught?

Chris Hart: My suspicion is he probably saw lying as a necessity. He thought he could get something via lying that he couldn't achieve through honesty. He probably didn't think he was going to get caught.

If we look at a lot of the lies that he has recently been held accountable for, these are lies he told before he was elected into office. And the dynamics were a little different — people weren't checking up on everything he said. So he might have just developed his social routine for what he wanted to get in life.

What is a pathological liar?

It's very frequent lying that's oftentimes compulsive in nature. When we talk about any kind of psychopathology, we characterize thoughts and behaviors as abnormal or psychopathological when they meet four criteria.

It is deviant in some ways: Usually, someone is doing something a lot more or a lot less than people do in the general population.

It causes dysfunction in the person's life: problems in their social relationships, romantic and family relationships and/or the workplace.

It causes them distress: They're troubled by their unusual behavior and wish they could stop or change.

It often causes some danger: sometimes physical danger, or risk of loss of opportunity.

[Hart says there are many variations of the definition, but this is how he and his colleague Drew Curtis frame the definition in their book “Big Liars: What Psychological Science Tells Us About Lying and How You Can Avoid Being Duped.”]

Is George Santos considered a pathological liar?

Not ever having evaluated him, I couldn't say anything definitive. Given just what I've seen based on what I read in the popular press, he doesn't really seem to have a lot of concern about his lying, and it doesn't seem to be distressing to him. He looks a lot more like the types of people that we see who have a diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder.

These are people that lie, and often for personal gain or because they're deriving some sort of pleasure out of it. But more broadly, they’re consistently violating the rights of others, breaking rules, violating social norms and generally operating in a very exploitive and manipulative way with others, oftentimes with very little evidence of empathy or remorse or guilt about their behavior.

What, if anything, is different about George Santos’s lies and the false or misleading claims that former President Donald Trump made during his campaigns and presidency?

I've seen some other psychologists writing about Donald Trump and describing his pattern of lying as actually being somewhat different. So we have this concept that we refer to people as "bullshitters" — and a bullshitter is someone who’s not really engaged in a cold, calculating form of lying. They're just saying whatever in the moment seems like the best thing to say, with no regard to whether it's truthful or not, saying whatever happens to serve their needs at the moment.

George Santos's lies seem a bit more calculated. He is clearly trying to cultivate a particular image of himself that would present himself as a more electable individual.

Do liars benefit politically from lying?

If we look at people who choose to go into politics, they seem to be typical in the sense of how honest they are. But we also found, in studies that looked at who gets reelected, we find that politicians who are willing to lie are significantly more likely to be reelected.

What this suggests is that the people who actually succeed are willing to make sacrifices with the truth, they're willing to kind of conceal things they don't want you to see and make the world appear as they want it to look to increase the odds of reelection.

Politics, unfortunately, is one of those domains where politicians, especially at the federal level, are serving so many constituents that it's really challenging to not offend or let down part of your constituency. And so one of the ways that politicians can avoid doing that is by concealing or shifting the message that they're telling people at different times.

It's probably a field where people would prefer to be honest, just like in any other field, but just the dynamics of the workplace make it almost essential that one is not being 100% genuine and forthright at all times.