Tag Archives: Commerce

New Books in STS Interview with Michael Pettit on The Science of Deception

New Books in Science, Technology, and Society, part of the New Books Network, has released an audio interview with historian Michael Pettit (left) on his recent book The Science of Deception: Psychology and Commerce in America. (For previous AHP posts on The Science of Deception see here and here.) As New Books in STS describes,

Parapsychology. You may have heard of it. You know, telepathy, precognition, clairvoyance, psychokinesis. Spoon-bending and that sort of thing. If you have heard of it, you probably think of it as a pseudoscience. And indeed it is. But it wasn’t always so. There was a time in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when practitioners and advocates of parapsychology abounded. William James, one of the very founders of modern psychological science, was a fan. Most of the founders of modern psychology, of course, weren’t fans. They considered the parapsychologists frauds peddling cheap tricks to gullible people. These con-men, they said, gave true psychological science a bad name. There was only one thing to do: unmask them.

As Michael Pettit shows in his fascinating book The Science of Deception: Psychology and Commerce in America (University of Chicago Press, 2013), that is precisely what the scientific psychologists did, or at least tried to do. They worked hard to create a firm boundary between their legitimate practice and what they considered illegitimate trickery. In so doing, they developed a science of deception, one that had far reaching implications for science, the law, and commerce in the United States.

The full interview can be heard online here.

Share on Facebook

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.

Share on Facebook

Deception and Psychology

AHP is pleased to present an interview with Michael Pettit, author of the newly released book The Science of Deception: Psychology and Commerce in America.

Michael Pettit is a faculty member in the History and Theory of Psychology graduate program at York University. This book represents a culmination of Pettit’s research interests. In particular, his research centers on psychology’s emergence as a science, a discipline, and a profession as well as the dissemination of scientific knowledge in the public sphere. The entire interview is below:

AHP: As an historian of the human sciences, what led you to investigate the topic of deception and psychology?

MP: My interest in deception was originally inspired by my training in American history and the history of capitalism. Early in grad school, I had been reading quite a bit about the showman P. T. Barnum, his entertaining hoaxes, and the culture of exhibition. I was curious about the role of the fledging American scientific community and their expertise in the reception of these spectacles. I also wanted to figure out what happened to fraud (legally and culturally) after the golden age of Barnum’s humbugs had passed. As I began the research, I found books by early popular psychologists on the same shelf as Barnum’s exposés which led me to ask about the historical relationships between the two.

AHP: Psychologists have, at various times, sought to detect, deploy, and even diagnose deceptive practices. How has deception become so central to psychology, and is a psychology without deception even possible?

MP: I think deception is important for psychology methodologically because psychologists from a wide range of perspectives define the human as fundamentally a deceitful and deceivable creature. A large part of the psychologist’s authority derives from the conviction that humans cannot understand themselves (their thoughts, feelings, behaviors) without their considerable mediating role. Because there is a deep suspicion (yet reliance) on human testimony, these concerns are particularly acute in psychology compared to other human sciences (e.g. economics). One long-standing narrative about the intellectual history of the twentieth century is that Freud had a tremendous cultural impact because he introduced a view of human nature as profoundly irrational. My book seeks to reorient this narrative. I would argue that concerns about the deceivable and deceitful self figured prominently in late nineteenth-century American culture, especially in discussions of the market, and that created a space into which psychoanalysis was received and transformed into a particularly American form of self talk. Continue reading Deception and Psychology

Share on Facebook