One of the fiercest creatures in ancient Greek mythology was the Hydra. The serpent beast had many heads, poisonous breath, and venomous blood. Hercules, the Greek mythological hero, was tasked to pursue and defeat the Hydra. The battle of the Hydra proved difficult; when a head was severed, then more heads would grow in its place.
In some psychoanalytical traditions, such as those founded by Sigmund Freud or Carl Jung, mythology was a tool to conceptualize and discuss human processes. Mythos is still used by modern psychologists. Jordan Peterson, a psychologist, used the Hydra mythos to discuss lying. The illustration paints the picture that lies beget lies and that the consequences of one lie can grow into numerous other consequences. The hydra analogy even points to the challenges of trying to deal with one lie, in that it can be difficult to contain, as many grow in its place. Along with the difficulty of managing lies, the Hydra imagery alludes to lies as venomous and toxic.
To examine the Hydra Hypothesis, some of our work explored this within the context of pathological lying. We discovered that pathological liars indicated more than non-pathological lairs that their lies grew from an initial lie. In follow-up research discussed in our book, we found individuals who identified as pathological liars would report telling some seemingly innocuous lie that morphed into several lies.
For example, a person who lied about feeling ill one day led to several years of fabrications and exaggerations to a variety of healthcare professionals and family members. People who struggle with pathological lying may tell a seemingly inconsequential lie in the moment without an apparent motivation, such as lying about the day of the week a person was born. Then, the individual may begin telling other people the same lie and even embellish in order to maintain the initial lie.
The lies that grow are not so inconsequential. These lies can cause problems in relationships when discovered by others. They can also pose problems for the individual who engages in pathological lying, as they often report experiencing distress and remorse for some time after telling a lie. Some individuals who are pathological liars may even ruminate on why they lied about something that seemed so trivial.
To date, pathological lying has yet to be recognized as a formal diagnosis. However, there are some recommendations and treatment considerations for people who find themselves struggling with lies that grow—or those who are battling the Hydra.