Review: The Science of Deception

Michael Pettit’s The Science of Deception: Psychology and Commerce in America is the story of how a particular kind of psychological self emerged in the twentieth century. Focusing on what he terms the deceivable and deceitful selves, Pettit traces how a self understanding rooted in the capacity to deceive and be deceived came to play an important role in both the practice of psychology and in the world of commerce. In doing so, two questions drive the narrative: “How did psychology take root in a culture fascinated by robber barons and confidence men, national brands and their counterfeit, yellow journalism and muckraking exposés?” and “How did the growing presence of psychology on the American cultural landscape transform these concerns about deception?” (p. 7). This is the story of how the mutually reinforcing worlds of the market place and psychology came to craft our current understanding of individuals as both deceivable and deceitful. In the process, Pettit argues, deception has been both normalized and problematized. Everyone deceives, whether themselves or others, and consequently those in the commercial, psychological, and broader social worlds take steps to guard against such deceptions.

Pettit locates the roots of the deceivable and deceitful selves in the growth of the market economy. In a world increasingly populated by swindlers, crooks, and conmen deception was all too common. With the involvement of the courts in cases involving deception, came a move from seeing victims as innocent to an understanding of victims as complicit. To be deceived one had to be in possession of a deceitful self. From here Pettit goes onto describe how deception featured in various realms of commercial and psychological life from the late-nineteenth century into the twentieth century. A psychological understandings of the self as deceivable and deceitful influenced regulatory bodies and court decisions. Although not always the psychological understanding of the self advocated by psychologists themselves, this understanding of the self as in possession of a distinct, deceptive psychology was none the less influential. Increasingly, deception came to be seen as an integral part of selfhood.

In the realm of research, those in the nascent discipline of psychology sought to police the fraudulent activities of psychics and conmen, while themselves using deceptive tools such as visual illusions. Into the twentieth century, ideas of deception continued to make themselves felt within the discipline and larger society. Here Pettit discusses the creation and dissemination of the lie detector, as well as efforts to identity honest personality traits through tools like the Honesty Index. In the latter effort, the discipline began to adopt deception as a key, and seemingly necessary, component of its methodology. To manage a world rife with deception, psychology itself adopted deceptive practices, as it began to be understood that only through deceit could the truth of the human condition be uncovered. Such practices continue in the field to this day.

For anyone interested in the growth of early American psychology, the intertwined histories of psychology and commerce, and the historical development of psychological methods The Science of Deception is an invaluable resource. Inasmuch as this book tells a history of deception, it also sheds new light on both psychology’s current disciplinary formation and the development of one of the central features of selfhood today.

Read AHP’s interview with Pettit on The Science of Deception here and a further post on the subject here.

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About Jacy Young

Jacy Young is a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) of Canada Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Surrey in the UK. She completed her doctorate in the History and Theory of Psychology at York University in 2014.

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