How The Lie Was Told

February 7, 2013, 9:15 am

The first illustration of Pinocchio, by Enrico Mazzanti. Photo credit.

Today’s guest blogger is Michael Pettit, associate professor of Psychology and Science and Technology Studies at York University in Toronto. He recently published The Science of Deception: Psychology and Commerce in America. He is currently completing the research on another project tentatively entitled The Sex Lives of Animals in the Age of Kinsey.

Lies loom large over the historian’s craft. Historians devote considerable time to parsing the tensions among words, intentions, and behaviours. Reconstructing the inner lives of those who lived in the past is a notoriously difficult task. It is doubly so when you know your informants are deliberately leading you astray. And yet deception hasn’t really figured as a category of historical analysis. My recent book asks, to what extent do our conceptions of lying, fraud, and deception have a history? What would such a history entail?

A cultural analysis of deception would address some of the following questions:

  • Are particular types of people particularly associated with deception?
  • What institutions are assumed to deceive?
  • What activities are particularly fraudulent?
  • How can we detect fraud?

I have had some helpful guideposts in my work. Micro-historians have been the most adept at grappling with these issues. In that genre, the scholar often adopts the persona of the detective or judge seeking to resolve a mystery. Indeed, one could do much worse than zoom onto the confidence games of convicted financier Bernie Madoff, or the deceptions of cyclist Lance Amstrong, to unlock the value and meaning systems of early twenty-first century culture. Early on, I was attracted to these kinds of figures, for example the well-known Cardiff Giant hoax or the largely forgotten George Kimmel. Furthermore, there has been important work on nineteenth-century trickster figures like the real-life entertainment entrepreneur P.T. Barnum or Br’er Rabbit, who lied to save his skin but exists only in folklore.

In the research for my book, I was interested in understanding the historical relationship between the looking-glass consumer economy of baubles and bubbles and the new science of psychology, which promised to finally tell the whole and accurate truth about human nature. Now, the “new psychology” of the late nineteenth century is typically presented as a rather staid affair. It featured gentlemen toying in their labs with brass instruments to measure perception and the senses. This picture does not do justice to their presence in the print culture and lecture circuit of the turn of the twentieth century United States nor does it help explain psychology’s massive presence as a helping profession and core aspect therapeutic culture.

From the 1880s to 1910s, America’s early psychologists possessed a genuine optimism about a more honest public culture modeled on science. In their pursuit of deception, psychologists invited stage magicians into their laboratories, hid under tables to examine spiritualists in the field, and experimented on the recognition of commercial brands. Early clinical psychologists attached the juvenile courts thought they had detected a new type, pathological liars, among Chicago’s female delinquents. The lie detector – that dubious truth machine – is probably the most visible product of this moment.

The 1920s was an important historical pivot in how we have come to live with deception today. Paying attention to talk about honesty and deception, I think puts the so-called revolt of the moderns in a new light.

When reading newspapers and magazines from this period one gets an acute sense that America’s financial success was also its moral downfall. These writers express concerns with the moral character of both the business executive and the school child. “Honesty books” and character education ventures flourished as a means of salving the propriety (and property) of future generations of citizens. At the same time, psychologists found that there were no deceptive types and that people lied because of the demands of the situation. These scientists questioned the ability of character-building institutions like Sunday schools and the Boy Scouts to instill character.

Paradoxically, this new truthfulness about dishonesty often required deception on the scientist’s part. The relationship between the psychologist and the research participant changed dramatically during this period. Previously, psychologists had resorted to trickery largely when dealing with those they already defined as fraudulent or criminal, like when they tested the abilities of a spirit medium or sought to validate the lie detector in the field. Now the default assumption about all psychological subjects was that they needed to be handled with misdirection. Even the child was no longer assumed to be an innocent but an individual needed to be bested because the potential trickery brewing inside.

I want to be cautious about offering an overly simple or homogeneous history of lying and deception, however. It is important to always ask, deception for whom? Nevertheless, I think this history reveals the paradoxical nature of our relationship with lies. The American middle class of the nineteenth century defined an “honest” person as someone who followed the rules of decorum and politeness. Socially sanctioned white lies were the glue that kept things together. To a certain extent we remain heirs that this tradition, but there is also an important shift. Since the 1920s, there has been greater latitude about the occasional need to lie, cheat, or steal depending on the situation. At the same time, certain kinds of behaviours are defined as deceptive because there is a greater exactitude about what counts as dishonesty. Honesty demands frankness, authenticity, and outright revelation rather than a reliance on the silent veil of politeness and decorum.

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