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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