Inside the interview

Interviewing the pathological subject

By By Martin T. Biegelman, CFE, ACFE Fellow; and Joel T. Bartow, CFE, CPP


As I mentioned in an earlier column, you're invited to e-mail me questions on interviewing to Here's the selected question for this issue: "I interviewed a pathological liar on several occasions who had bribed a government official. He exhibited no anxiety and actually seemed to enjoy the interviews. What techniques can you suggest using in this situation? By the way, he never admitted guilt, even when confronted with documentary and testamentary evidence at his trial. He was convicted and served seven years in a federal prison for his crime."   

I am all too familiar with interviewing the pathological subject. Years ago, I was a law enforcement officer in Salisbury, N.C., the home of a veterans' administration hospital. The hospital serves veterans with physical, mental, and emotional needs. Many times the local bank would call the police station because a hospital patient would want to draw large sums of money out of his nonexistent savings account. I would then talk to the patient at the bank. He wouldn't be lying to me or the bank; he would honestly believe that he had money and it was in the bank waiting for him.

Let's start with a working definition of deception (it's not the only definition but it will do for now): "One person intending to mislead another." The key word in this definition is "intending." Deception by definition has to be intentional. No one will accidentally or inadvertently deceive another. Consequently, the term "pathological liar" is once again by definition, a misnomer. Pathological subjects believe that what they are telling is the truth so, therefore, there's no deception. But still, the pathological person can't remember something that didn't happen.

When dealing with either the knowing or the pathological liar (I add "liar" only for the sake of clarity) the problem for them both is in the details. Both individuals are drawing from imagination. As the skilled interviewer questions to find the details, the interviewee has greater difficulty holding the fabric of the story together without making a mistake. The knowing liar tends to become emotive when the interviewer asks increasingly pointed questions to elicit more details but the pathological liar, as we learn in the reader's question, tends to display no anxiety.

Confronting the pathological person with facts and details that are contrary to his assertions is like nailing Jell-o to a wall. He will simply shrug it off and go off into another direction and build yet still another explanation.

When dealing with the pathological interviewee, give him the facts and details that will refute his assertions but don't expect him to acquiesce or recant his previous statements.




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