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.

AHP: Was there a specific event that marked the change of deception as relatively benign and unimportant to being something potentially dangerous that must be guarded against? Have these two views of deception continued to co-exist, or has the latter completely overtaken the former?

MP: I ultimately concluded that there was not a simple narrative of change over time to be told about the place of deception and fraud in American life. I think there were specific individuals at certain times who held up great hope that certain technoscientific interventions could eliminate deception of society by rendering people more transparent and legible. The overall thrust is one of accepting deception as a necessary and even desirable feature of human interactions.

AHP: Early mesmerists, physiognomists, and phrenologists all made their living capitalizing on the public’s cry for an applied psychology. How did these early psychologies pave the way (or not) for the kind of public psychologies that developed later on? To what extent did these psychologies serve to create the kind of psychological society talked about in your book?

MP: There is an interesting narrative structure to the history of popular psychology where one generation’s scientific debunkers become the next’s charlatans. The sciences you mention were definitely important in cultivating certain notions of human interiority and the secularization of the soul. They also helped craft some cultural scripts that continue to contribute to the suspicion that surrounds psychology as a public science.

AHP: In your book, you discuss the connection between the discipline of psychology and the marketplace. Could you briefly describe what you mean by market culture?

MP: In addition to working on the history of the human sciences, I also see myself as a scholar researching the history of American capitalism. For me, market or commercial culture means at least two, interrelated things. One, it involves looking at economic activity through an anthropological lens to elucidate what kinds of practices, rituals, beliefs, and narratives sustain specific commercial activities. It also entails examining the kinds of values and concepts of the human flourishing in a society largely defined by the marketplace as the model of human sociality. Like many others, I would argue that understanding of the human promoted by psychology resonates (although is not caused by) the individualistic ethos of market culture. As a historian of science though, I am also very much interested in the first set of concerns: how psychology as a science features in the more mundane and everyday practices of commerce.

AHP: What factors within psychology and the marketplace led to the constructions of technologies to detect deception? What effect did the invention of deception detecting tools have on psychology and on ideas of deception?

MP: In many ways, the book is not a disciplinary history. Major figures from textbooks are often given fairly marginal treatment, shifts in the major schools do not structure the narrative, I focus as much on applied and popular psychology as experimental research, etc. This is because the impact is felt at least outside as inside the discipline. Nevertheless, I think ideas about deception feature most prominently in discussions of research methods. The spectacular trickery of 1950s and 1960s social psychology is probably what most readily comes to mind, but these concerns are present in a less dramatic form in the everyday design of tests.

AHP: Can you give an example or two of instances in which psychology’s claims of expertise over deceitful practices was resisted or rejected?

MP: The expertise was almost always contested. Newspapers accused character testers looking for dishonesty of foisting their wares on unsuspecting schools and businesses. Spirit mediums complained when scientific investigators used their own brand of trickery. Two instances from the history of lie detection are particularly telling. In 1906, Hugo Munsterberg tried to use an early deception test as part of the trial of the labor leader Big Bill Haywood. The defense attorney Clarence Darrow accused the psychologist of charlatanry. The press, the legal profession, and Munsterberg’s fellow psychologists largely concurred. Furthermore, the jury in the trial found Haywood not guilty, not believing the testimony of the witness Munsterberg tried to validate. It was a public relations flop. About twenty years later the advice columnist Doris Blake complained about the scientific fantasy of the mass application of the lie detector. She did not question the test’s validity, but rather questioned whether such radical transparency was good for society. After all, deceptive politeness – white lies – is often the social glue that keeps us together.

AHP: Over the course of your research on psychology, commerce, and deception, is there anything you discovered that particularly surprised you?

MP: I might be alone, but for me the most interesting chapter is on trademark legislation. I knew from the start that I wanted a chapter on deceptive advertising, but I was not sure how to connect it to the history of psychology. Unlike the well-known story of the lie detector, the (largely failed) role of psychologists in developing modern trademark law is not. Nevertheless, one of its main legal architects Edward Rogers had a thorough psychological understanding of consumption. It was definitely one of my archival finds. It also made me aware of the history of intellectual property which is fascinating.

AHP: Is there anything else you would like to tell AHP’s readers?

MP: Thanks for reading!