The Science of Deception: Psychology and Commerce in America

The Science of Deception: Psychology and Commerce in America

by Michael Pettit


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226923741
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 01/18/2013
Pages: 312
Product dimensions: 9.40(w) x 6.20(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Michael Pettit is assistant professor of the history and theory of psychology at York University in Toronto.


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The Science of Deception

Psychology and Commerce in America


Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-92374-1

Chapter One

"Graft Is the Worst Form of Despotism": Swindlers, Commercial Culture, and the Deceivable Self

The "grafter" attracted J. P. Johnston's attention soon upon entering his jewelry clearance store in late nineteenth-century Chicago. The tall man dressed in overalls, a dingy blouse, boots, and a cap had the appearance of a casual laborer, but Johnston recognized him as a former business acquaintance. The young gentlemen came from a reputable family, had graduated from Yale, and had previously held a managerial position of some responsibility with a dry goods firm. For these reasons, Johnston, himself an itinerant merchant and self-described hustler, was taken aback that the man was passing himself off as a potato seller in the streets outside his shop. The young man explained that he was not, in truth, a street hawker, but rather a self-identified grafter. His targets were the women who maintained refined homes in the city and yet were still in search of a good bargain. He would travel door to door on the pretense of selling potatoes in order to gauge the household's income. Upon ascertaining its wealth, the man would then produce a set of spectacles that had the appearance of gold but were in fact made of a near worthless metal alloy that would turn green with oxidization after a few days. Claiming to have found them in the street and that they were of no use to him, he would offer to sell his new client the spectacles at below the market cost for gold. He would vary the asking price based on the woman's outer appearance and their conversation about the sale of potatoes. By the time the woman detected the deception, the grafter had moved on to another neighborhood to ply his trade. The young man found that what he could make through the graft greatly exceeded the paltry amount of his former fixed salary. Furthermore, he explained that his rich father had recently passed away and that the estate had become so entangled that its legal fees were greater than its worth.

Gilded Age authors like Johnston used the figure of the confidence man in developing a psychology to explain changes they perceived in both commercial and political life. For his part, Johnston presented stories about grafters as moral tales revealing the potentials and pitfalls of modern commercial life. For example, when recounting this particular story he noted that the young man would ultimately come to spend time in a penitentiary for his dishonesty. Yet a certain admiration for the swindler's great aptitude for moneymaking and self-transformation remained. Carefully noting the grafter's deceptive outward appearance, Johnston appreciated his honed ability to successfully play as many roles as his circumstances demanded. Morally dubious, the confidence man remained a self-reliant individual who successfully geared his trade and his own self-image toward consumer desires. Confidence men played this dual purpose because, as historian Scott Sandage has argued, in the nineteenth century "Americans swapped liberty for ambition." Sandage emphasizes how, in an increasingly secular world, one's financial success became equated with one's inner moral virtue. At the same time that Social Darwinian commentators were trumpeting the moral superiority of the wealthy, a wide range of American writers argued that the act of moneymaking itself was at best an amoral and often times an immoral endeavor. Multisited discussions of confidence men, swindles, and political graft served as opportunities for reconciling this seeming contradiction. During the Gilded Age, jurists, journalists, ethnographers, and confessing criminals all came to stress that beneath the surface of the market's seemingly innocent victims brewed the deceitful passions of self-interest. Their writing brought to the fore how unethical commercial behavior toyed with one's affect and how emotion compromised one's individual freedom.

Both advocates and critics described the confidence game as an activity that hinged on what they called "mass psychology." Those who worked these schemes boasted of their superior mastery over other people's hidden mental machinery. As E. G. Redmond noted in his exposé The Frauds of America (1896), what he termed the "bunco-steerer" is "an almost infallible judge of human nature and rarely makes a mistake in selecting his subject." His account of the swindler reflected the decade's fascination with hypnotic phenomena as made popular through the figure of Svengali in George du Maurier's best-selling novel Trilby. Due to a powerful force of personality, Redmond's confidence man was capable of projecting his will onto his victim, who was "amazed at the temporary paralysis of volition that afflicted him." Through personal magnetism and knowledge of human desire, the confidence man was capable of usurping an individual's will. He preyed on virtuous citizens and played upon their repressed and base natures, their hidden avarice and desire, drawing these emotions out into the public sphere. Beyond immediate financial losses, this literature also portrayed the risk possessed by confidence games as enslaving otherwise good liberal men to their basest passions, resulting in a loss of self-control, autonomy, and independence.

The confidence man as a distinct social type first appeared in the mid-nineteenth century, as part of the American middle class's emphasis on the importance of sincerity and transparency in one's self-representation. Techniques that enabled the honest to distinguish themselves from the disreputable permeated the period's cultural productions, from advice manuals to the arrangement of homes to women's fashion. The psychological model of the individual who informed this culture drew upon an understanding of the mind as a malleable, blank slate over which the confidence man exercised an external mastery. Ideally, such a self-made man sought his livelihood through regular adherence to self-discipline, thrift, and a faith in the resulting providential rewards. This normative vision defined white manliness as "self-reliant, strong, resolute, courageous, honest." In contrast to this rational and self-possessed male, women were depicted as emotional and deceitful. Yet the confidence man, with his ability to bend the will of others, was a masculine type who undercut both the self-reliance and self-mastery at the heart of the manly ideal of liberal governance. Thus, he anticipated the aggressive masculinity that eclipsed the refined Victorian vision of restrained manliness. Indeed, the domain of the market economy served as an important site for the expression of this code of gendered conduct. "Confidence man" became a signifier for a host of troubling economic activities, namely financial speculating, advertising of goods, and engaging in political graft.

Depictions of the confidence man are primarily found in a rather inglorious literary tradition of confession and exposé. These works fell into a number of genres: short, ephemeral pamphlets aimed at visitors to urban centers, local businessmen, or farmers; longer exposés published by police officers, mail inspectors, or agricultural newspapers; amusing and colorful recollections produced by confidence men or detectives at the end of their careers. Many of these works were published by small-time publishers, far from metropolitan centers and tailored to local concerns, problems, or crime sprees. The memoirs of confidence men, written frequently after a self-declared retirement from the trade, often served as a further opportunity at self-aggrandizement, a final cashing-in on their ingenious schemes by having the reader pay to learn from their experiences. These texts are rich catalogues of the everyday practices of grafting, but despite the availability of these sources, the confidence man remains a particularly difficult historical subject to pin down. His identity is intertwined with a refined insincerity. By his very profession, the swindler makes an unreliable witness. He literally manufactures a fictitious past in order to pursue his latest commercial exploit. Thus, despite the wealth of first-hand accounts, the reader is never certain which events depicted in the text actually took place, were exaggerated, or simply fabricated in order to spin an impressive tale. To further complicate matters, journalists would often write under the guise of a swindler, executing their own literary confidence game. For these reasons, this chapter focuses on how these texts represented experiences of the marketplace and how they worked to frame expectations about commercial life. These books instructed people facing a confidence man to expect a charismatic individual, who was capable of shifting his outward appearance and who embodied the aggressive, aggrandizing aspects of commercial self-making.

This chapter charts the ebb and flow of attempts to demarcate the confidence man as somehow different in kind from the denizens of what contemporaries called "the upper world." The confidence man was a powerful cultural symbol precisely because he brought to the fore the seeming omnipresence of insincerity and deception in modern social life. A wide array of Americans drew the moral equivalences between the confidence game and corporate enterprise and urban politics. In 1908 Chicago police detective Clifton Wooldridge identified the municipal graft as "the worst form of despotism." Not only did this corruption impede the proper functioning of government, but seeking fraudulent deals also became the focal point of all of the crooked politician's strivings. Graft became an all-consuming and undeniable habit that dominated his behavior. Much like its effect on the individual soul, for Wooldridge the presence of the graft risked enslaving liberal democracy to the will of the criminal class. For many of his contemporaries who shared this conviction, stock market speculation, salesmanship, and municipal graft did not seem so different from the criminal swindle.

The Psychology of Caveat Emptor

As a term to describe a particular kind of criminal, "confidence man" first appeared in the newspaper coverage of the 1849 trial of William Thompson. He would approach well-to-do passersby in Manhattan, inquiring whether they had "confidence" in their fellow citizens. Upon receiving an affirmative response, the well-dressed Thompson offered an opportunity to invest in a potentially lucrative business venture. Before disclosing the details, however, he would first ask them to prove the sincerity of their statement by allowing him to borrow their pocket watch, promising to return it at the same spot the next day. He would then disappear, absconding with the watch but leaving his victims with a tidy—and, one might imagine, embarrassing—lesson on the perils of trust. Thompson's scheme manipulated expectations that linked inner moral character to outward visual signifiers. He became notorious because his crime exposed the weaknesses of established mechanisms for guaranteeing trust in metropolitan interactions and crowded, mobile spaces like trains and riverboats. From the outset, certain newspapers suggested the moral and methodological equivalences between this petty grafter and the Wall Street financiers. An editorial in James Gordon Bennett's New York Herald questioned why Thompson lived on moldy bread in the city's Tombs while his brethren enjoyed the comforts of their mansions. After all, both profited from the deceitful manipulation of other people's beliefs for their personal gain. From the very beginning, then, this criminal figure provided a vocabulary for articulating moral concerns about finance as an economic activity. For some observers, the ups and downs of speculation seemed very much like a fictitious confidence game.

Historian Karen Halttunen has documented how the exposés and advice manuals produced during this period emphasized the innocence of the confidence man's victims. These books typically portrayed "marks" as rural rubes new to the illegible landscapes of America's major cities. Contributors to this genre soon identified a number of other schemes that similarly manipulated a person's misplaced trust. Bunco, gold brick, and green goods were the three earliest recognized forms of what were later called "short-cons." Bunco derived from games of chance such as card tricks and the wheel of fortune. It required one swindler to run the game while an accomplice acted the part of another player. The victim would witness his competitor's tremendous luck and significant winnings, illustrating the easiness of the game and its profitability. All along the game had been fixed and, once the mark started placing big bets, the wheel's fortune would quickly turn against him.

Despite the presumption of innocence, the actual descriptions of these confidence games displayed a very different relationship between the grafter and the mark. Such was the case with the "gold brick" schemes that arose out the world of mining. The swindler would pass himself off as an itinerant prospector who had chanced upon a rich mineral find. This "miner" would offer to sell his gold below market rates, explaining his desperation for immediate cash and his lack of resources to bring the gold into town. Often the swindler would traffic in racialized notions of vulnerability and take on the appearance of a Hispanic or Native American operating on the margins of the economy. The greedy mark would realize the potential profit and happily purchase the gold, whereupon the swindler would then swap a real gold bar for one made of near-valueless ore. When the victim came to sell his prize, he would discover his costly error.

The green goods scheme similarly played upon the mark's desires to take advantage of others. In its simplest form, the swindler offered to sell a set of counterfeit bills below their denominational value. In a more complex version, the confidence man, claiming to possess a printing press that could produce bills indistinguishable from genuine ones, offered to partner with his mark. Inevitably the victim would discover that the bills in his possession were distinguishable, rendering them worthless. The success of the green goods scheme hinged upon the relative novelty of a paper currency backed by the federal government. With state banks responsible for the issuing of notes in the absence of nationally standardized bills, the counterfeiting of currency was endemic in the early republic. By mid-century, a national network of locally organized counterfeiting rings meant that as much as half the circulated specie was fraudulent. The Civil War forged a more cohesive nation-state, including the policing of one of its most visible symbols, a standardized national currency. Anti-counterfeiting measures became a major locus of the federal government's police powers. Enforcing the Legal Tender Act (1862) led to the creation of the Secret Service, making the policing of fraud one of the earliest pillars of the formation of a more interventionist state.

Contract law did not give much support to the advice book genre's attempt to portray victims as innocents. Legal decisions encouraged people to assume the omnipresence of deceit brewing below appearances of respectability and honesty and to refrain from confiding in their fellow Americans. Courts did not require that individuals subordinate their own selfish impulses in the name of any obligation to others. Instead, they outlined a series of rules for navigating the deceitfulness thought to be inherent in market activity. The legal historian Morton Horwitz has argued that the demands of the market economy led to the legal distinction between "facts" and "opinion" in the jurisprudence addressing fraud. Discussing the legal transformation of the early republic, Horwitz contended that "since opinions, estimates, or interpretations were regarded as subjective—and part of a legitimate distinction of individual talents and attitudes—the only forms of knowledge which the market system could justly protect against misrepresentation were thought to be bare statements of 'facts.'" The widely cited Supreme Court case Laidlaw v. Organ (1817) defined the deceit necessary to prove fraud as consisting of deliberate acts of commission rather than silent omissions of relevant information. In that case, a tobacco trader who had knowledge of the declaration of peace in the War of 1812 was not held responsible for revealing this fact to an ignorant vendor, even though these new circumstances greatly improved the value of the commodity. Legally speaking, fraud required proof of intentionally conveying untrue statements as opposed to committing deceitful implicatures. The net effect of this legal formalism was a constraint upon the avenues through which the courts could intervene in commercial transactions, and a stricter delineation of the terms under which an individual could claim to have been swindled.

The decision in Rockafellow v. Baker (1861) captures how courts at mid-century conceptualized the market, the nature of its participants, and their responsibility to one another. Echoing the language that identified Thompson's crime, Woodward insisted

There is no confidence between buyer and seller, unless a warranty be demanded and given. They deal at arms' length. They use not each other's eyes, but each his own. The seller is allowed to express freely his opinions of the value of his wares—the buyer is at equal liberty to answer that it is naught. If there be an intentional concealment or suppression by either party of material facts which he is bound to communicate to the other, there is fraud; but neither party is bound to communicate that which is equally accessible to both. The state of the markets, the present and prospective value of a particular commodity, are among the things which are alike open to both buyer and seller, and neither is bound to instruct the other.


Excerpted from The Science of Deception by MICHAEL PETTIT Copyright © 2013 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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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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