Michael Pettit


Locations / Contact Info:

210 BSB
Keele Campus
Phone: 416 736 2100 Ext. 20759

Email address(es):

mpettit at yorku.ca

Faculty & School/Dept.

Faculty of Health - Department of Psychology


PhD - 2006
University Of Toronto

BA - 2001
King's College/Dalhousie


Michael Pettit is a historian of the human sciences and a critical psychologist.

His current research focuses on the critical history of mental health over the past hundred years. This project focuses the history of professional psychology in the English-speaking world, including its entanglements with libertarian thought, the promotion of new personal liberties, and advocacy for consumer choice in the medical marketplace. This project examines how these political demands shaped the kind of care psychologists provided. It also explores how radical alternatives to professionalism like community care challenged the field's narrow individualism. Fundementally this project asks, what kind of freedom did psychology promise and for whom? 

A related project involves a "reparative" history of mental health which draws upon psychologies of liberation to retheorize prominent concepts like trauma, resilience, and empowerment.

Finally, he frequenly engages in public-facing work (such as fiction and podcasting) as other means of pursuing critical psychology questions about the relationship among minds, bodies, culture, and politics.

He is open to working with undergraduates, graduate students, and postdocs interested in these issues and approaches.

Selected Publications


Michael Pettit, Governed by Affect: Hot Cognition and the End of Cold War Psychology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2024).

Michael Pettit, The Science of Deception: Psychology and Commerce in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013).

Special Issues

Michael Pettit & Jacy L. Young, eds., “Psychology and its Publics,” History of the Human Sciences 30(4) (2017).

Alexandra Rutherford & Michael Pettit, eds., “Feminism and/in/as Psychology” History of Psychology 18(3) (2015).

Recent Articles

Michael Pettit, "“Angela's Psych Squad”: Black Psychology against the American Carceral State in the 1970s." Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 58(4) (2022): 365-382.

Michael Pettit, "Varieties of the Self From Self-Esteem to Self-Control." In Wade Pickren (ed.). Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press, 2020.

Michael Pettit, "The Great Cat Mutilation: Sex, Social Movements and the Utilitarian Calculus in 1970s New York City," British Journal for the History of Science: Trends (2017).

Michael Pettit & Jana Vigor, “Pheromones, Feminism, and the Many Lives of Menstrual Synchrony,”BioSocieties 10(3) (2015): 271-294.

Michael Pettit, “Subject Matter: Human Behavior, Psychological Expertise, and Therapeutic Lives,”Social Studies of Science 45(1) (2015): 146-158.

Michael Pettit, Darya Serykh & Christopher D. Green, “Multispecies Networks: Visualizing the Psychological Research of the Committee for Research in Problems of Sex,” Isis 106(1) (2015): 121-149.

Michael Pettit, “Becoming Glandular: Endocrinology, Mass Culture, and Experimental Lives in the Interwar Age,” American Historical Review 118(4) (2013): 1052-1076.

Michael Pettit, “The Problem of Raccoon Intelligence in Behaviourist America,” British Journal for the History of Science 43 (3) (2010): 391-421.


Article Prize - Forum for the History of Science in America - 2011

Early Career Achievement Award - APA Div 26 - 2009

Early Career Award - FHHS - 2006


Currently available to supervise graduate students: Yes

Currently taking on work-study students, Graduate Assistants or Volunteers: Not Indicated

Available to supervise undergraduate thesis projects: Yes

Current Research

Research Projects

Sex Lives of Animals in the Age of Kinsey
His second major project was a series of interconnected articles on The Sex Lives of Animals in the Age of Kinsey. During the 1940s and 1950s a number of prominent American scientists championed the importance of non-procreative behaviors in understanding both human and animal sexuality. This liberal sexology informed much of the self-help literature and social policy of the sexual revolution. In the 1970s, newly organized feminist, LGBT, and animal liberation movements intervened to alter the core assumptions and practices of this behavioral endocrinology. The project draws on archival documents to trace how individual readers, patients, and activist organizations sought in turn, to engage, debunk, and incorporate this research into hormones and animal behavior into their own identities.
Role: Principal Investigator
Funded by: Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council

The Science of Deception
His first book The Science of Deception (2013) offered a novel interpretation of the cultural origins of psychology by looking at the discipline's place in the history of capitalism. The book charts the captivation with the practices of deception running through turn-of-twentieth-century American religious, legal, and commercial culture. It addresses how optical illusion crossed between laboratory instruments and amusements in mass culture, the role of psychology in laws regulating the advertising and labeling of food and drugs, the debunking of spirit mediums, pathological lying as a psychiatric diagnosis, the role of the lie detector in policing, and the rise of personality testing.
Role: Principal Investigator
Funded by: Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council

Governed by Affect: Hot Cognition and the End of Cold War Psychology
He recently completed a second book. Governed by Affect offers a new history of American psychology and its global entanglements since the 1960s. The book traces a series of transformations psychology underwent during this period: a switch in identity from a social to a health science; the greater engagement of psychological scientists in the realms of self-help and public policy; and the overshadowing of cognitive science by theories of affect. These three transformations -- in psychology's political economy, in its public engagement, and in its theories of self -- constitute distinct but interconnected areas of analysis for constructing a new history of the psychological society. Such a perspective offers a critical genealogy of the stakes and public face of psychology at a time when the provision of mental health services and the use of behavioral interventions to improve both personal and social well-being are acute matters of concern.
Role: Principal Investigator
Funded by: Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council