Analysis: Alleged Liar May Be 'Pathological'

At Adam B. Wheeler’s arraignment last week, Middlesex County Assistant District Attorney John C. Verner called Wheeler’s penchant for lying “pathological.”

Wheeler, a former Harvard student who allegedly fabricated letters of recommendation, transcripts, and SAT scores, has pled not guilty to 20 criminal charges.

Prosecutors accuse Wheeler of lying frequently and egregiously over a period of at least three years. Verner said that Wheeler’s compulsive behavior would not have stopped had his parents not intervened.

According to psychologists, the label “pathological” suits the nature of Wheeler’s alleged crimes, but the term cannot be definitively applied without further analysis of the defendant’s personality.

Carolyn Saarni, a psychologist and member of the American Psychological Association, defined pathological lying as “almost compulsive. There is very little moral discomfort about doing so.”

Such behavior typically begins at a young age with minor fibs, according to Shelley H. Carson, a Harvard psychology lecturer. When the liar finds that he or she is able to deceive without being caught, the lies grow bolder, Carson said.

“They start out with very small lies and self-aggrandizing lies, and they don’t get caught, [but] they get rewarded with social prestige and status,” she said.

In Wheeler’s case, she said, “I think his reward is probably self esteem... ‘Here I am, a Harvard student.’ He has to know somewhere in his mind he didn’t do what other people did to get into Harvard.”

Saarni said that Wheeler’s story sounds like “a major case of self-aggrandizement... A person who is a pathological liar lies to protect their self look bigger than one actually feels.”

Carson said that, in addition to desiring immediate gratification—the “shot of dopamine” that the liar receives from successful deceit—pathological liars are less likely to be dissuaded by the threat of punishment.

She pointed out that Wheeler continued to lie in his applications to Yale, Brown, and McLean Hospital, even after being dismissed from both Bowdoin College in Maine—where he spent his first two undergraduate years—and Harvard for academic dishonesty.

Because of this lack of regard for consequences, Carson said that prison sentences are not always effective in curtailing psychopathic behavior.

“So far, rehabilitation hasn’t been successful with the psychopath,” she said. “They’re wired differently.”

Carson described several studies which have suggested biological differences in psychopaths’ brain structures.

“I don’t want to characterize Adam Wheeler as a psychopath,” Carson said, adding that she would need to interview him herself in order to make a diagnosis. “However, I would say that he’s displaying the same type of pattern.”

Steven A. Sussman, Wheeler’s attorney, declined to comment for this article.

—Staff writer Xi Yu can be reached at

—Staff writer Julie M. Zauzmer can be reached at