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The Science of Deception

Psychology and Commerce in America

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Americans were fascinated with fraud. P. T. Barnum artfully exploited the American yen for deception, and even Mark Twain championed it, arguing that lying was virtuous insofar as it provided the glue for all interpersonal intercourse. But deception was not used solely to delight, and many fell prey to the schemes of con men and the wiles of spirit mediums. As a result, a number of experimental psychologists set themselves the task of identifying and eliminating the illusions engendered by modern, commercial life. By the 1920s, however, many of these same psychologists had come to depend on deliberate misdirection and deceitful stimuli to support their own experiments.
The Science of Deception explores this paradox, weaving together the story of deception in American commercial culture with its growing use in the discipline of psychology. Michael Pettit reveals how deception came to be something that psychologists not only studied but also employed to establish their authority. They developed a host of tools—the lie detector, psychotherapy, an array of personality tests, and more—for making deception more transparent in the courts and elsewhere. Pettit’s study illuminates the intimate connections between the scientific discipline and the marketplace during a crucial period in the development of market culture. With its broad research and engaging tales of treachery, The Science of Deception will appeal to scholars and general readers alike.

312 pages | 5 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2013

History: American History, History of Technology

History of Science

Language and Linguistics: Language and Law


“[I]mpressive. Each chapter illustrates that commercial success lies not in good science or good business practices, but instead in convincing the buyer that there is honesty and integrity where there is little or none. The strength of the work lies in Pettit’s exploration of how psychology used the tricks of corporations to sell itself. Whether discussing optical illusions, personality testing, or psychoanalysis, the author highlights the role of the scientist as con artist. . . . Recommended.”

D. M. Chirico, York College CUNY | Choice

“In this interesting book, Michael Pettit surveys the historical location of truth—and its opposite—by examining a series of encounters among deception, science, law, and business between 1880 and 1920.”

Ellen Herman, University of Oregon | American Historical Review

"Psychology is often described as a problematic subject, which can be seen as more an assemblage of fields than a single discipline; Pettit presents not a history of behaviourism or psychoanalysis, but a history that includes both, and more. In taking deception as a category of historical analysis, he is able to present a synthetic picture of psychology which moves beyond constraints such as approach or institution, applied, theoretical or laboratory work."

Alice White, University of Kent | British Journal for the History of Science

“A scrupulously researched, kaleidoscopic tour of fraud and fakery in modern America, The Science of Deception brings to light the deeply entangled histories of professional psychology and market culture. With remarkable virtuosity and range, and moving seamlessly among realms as different as advertising, psychotherapy, forensics, food and product regulation, trademark law, and laboratory protocol, Michael Pettit mines a deep vein of anxiety about consumer society—one with surprising dividends for science. This is a fascinating tale of confidence games and conjurers, crime fiction and muckraking, pathological liars and optical illusions, with penetrating insights into how psychology as a discipline, practice, and set of generative concepts about the self infiltrated American life in the twentieth century.”

Sarah E. Igo, author of The Averaged American

“Michael Pettit beckons our attention to the neglected underside of the truth technologies of the modern human sciences, persuasively showing how lies, deceptions, illusions, and other fraudulent acts captivated psychologists as they investigated the psychological self. He ties psychological investigations of deception with the uncertainties about truth that were circulating through economic and legal thought and enriches our historical understanding of scientific psychology’s ideals of objectivity. Pettit’s capacious tour of the science of deception that framed much psychological research explores studies of confidence men, self deception, parapsychology, commercial fraud, and dishonest schoolchildren. Having traveled through these cases, the reader henceforth will be aware of the ubiquity of deception in everyday life and ever attentive to how it comprises an organizing principle in the methods and content of twentieth century psychological science.”

Jill G. Morawski, Wesleyan University

“What if psychology was not just the heir of philosophy or physiology, as so many disciplinary histories have implied, but instead emerged through an engagement with the deceptive practices of the marketplace, from the “low” humbuggery of carnival shows to the duplicity of corporate managers? Michael Pettit’s wide-ranging and entertaining book maps out this alternative cultural history of American psychology in compelling terms.”

Ken Alder, author of The Lie Detectors

“Michael Pettit explores the connections of academic psychology and of established institutions such as courts and bureaucracies with the humbug of hucksters, confidence men, and medically diagnosed pathological liars. In this way he extends the reach of history of science into a world of slippery subjects that so cunningly elude reliable knowledge.”

Theodore M. Porter, University of California, Los Angeles

Table of Contents


Chapter 1. “Graft Is the Worst Form of Despotism”: Swindlers, Commercial Culture, and the Deceivable Self

Chapter 2. Hunting Duck-Rabbits: Illusions, Mass Culture, and the Law of Economy

Chapter 3. “Not Our Houses but Our Brains Are Haunted”: The Arts of Exposure at the Boundaries of Credulity

Chapter 4. The Unwary Purchaser: Trademark Infringement, the Deceivable Self, and the Subject of Consumption

Chapter 5. Diagnosing Deception: Pathological Lying, Lie Detectors, and the Normality of the Deceitful Self

Chapter 6. Studies in Deceit: Personality Testing and the Character of Experiments
Conclusion. Barnum’s Ghost Gives an Encore Performance


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