Gaslighting is a colloquialism for a specific type of manipulation where the manipulator is successful in having the target (a person or a group of people) question their own reality, memory or perceptions. There is often a power dynamic in gaslighting where the target is vulnerable because they are fearful of losses associated with challenging the manipulator. Gaslighting is not necessarily malicious or intentional, although in some cases it is.
The term is derived from the title of the 1938 British play Gas Light where a vulnerable protagonist is manipulated to believe a harmful and false reality that benefits the self-serving antagonist.
The term "gaslighting" first appeared in print in 1969.
The term is derived from the play Gas Light  where a manipulative and deceitful husband drives his wife nearly to insanity. It was adapted into the 1940 British film, and the more famous 1944 American remake.
The title of the play refers to gas lights in the couple's home that the husband periodically dims. The wife repeatedly asks her husband to confirm her perceptions about the dimming lights and he insists that the lights have not changed.:8 His intention is to have her committed to a mental institution.
"Gaslighting" once referred to extreme manipulation that could induce mental illness or justify commitment to a psychiatric institution. It is now used more generally in a non-literal sense and often for rhetorical or vivid effect. The term is simply defined as to make someone question their reality.
"Gaslighting" is occasionally used in clinical literature but is considered a colloquialism by the American Psychological Association.
In psychiatry and psychologyEdit
Dorpat cautions clinicians about the unintentional abuse of patients when using interrogation and other methods of covert control in Psychotherapy and Analysis as these methods can subtly coerce patients rather than respect and genuinely help them.:31–46 He recommended more non-directive and egalitarian attitudes and methods on the part of clinicians,:225 "treating patients as active collaborators and equal partners".:246
In a 1997 case study, Lund and Gardiner review a case of paranoid psychosis in an elderly female is reported in which recurrent episodes were apparently induced by the staff of the institution where the patient was a resident.
Philosophy scholar Kate Abramson suggests that there are individuals who cannot tolerate disagreement with or criticism of their view of things from certain individuals in their life (friends, loved ones, romantic partners) and an effective way to neutralize the possibility of criticism is to undermine others' conception of themselves as an autonomous locus of thought, judgement, and action. This effectively reduces the targets capacity to criticize or respond independently.
In self-help and amateur psychologyEdit
As described by Patricia Evans, self-help author, the seven "warning signs" of gaslighter are:
- Withholding information from the victim;
- Countering information to fit the abuser's perspective;
- Discounting information;
- Using verbal abuse, usually in the form of jokes;
- Blocking and diverting the victim's attention from outside sources;
- Trivializing ("minimising") the victim's worth; and,
- Undermining the victim by gradually weakening them and their thought processes.
Evans considers it necessary to understand the warning signs in order to begin the process of healing from it.
Gaslighting involves a person, or a group of people, the mental abuser or the victimizer, and a second person, the victim, or even a group of persons as victims. It can be either conscious or unconscious, and is carried out covertly, such that the resulting emotional abuse is not overtly abusive.
Gaslighting depends on "first convincing the victim that [the victim's] thinking is distorted and secondly persuading [the victim] that the victimizer's ideas are the correct and true ones".:45 Gaslighting induces cognitive dissonance in the victim, "often quite emotionally charged cognitive dissonance", and makes the victim question their own thinking, perception, and reality testing, and thereby tends to evoke in them low self-esteem and disturbing ideas and affects, and may facilitate development of confusion, anxiety, depression, and in some extreme cases, even psychosis.:33–34 After the victim loses confidence in their mental capacities and develops a sense of learned helplessness, they become more susceptible to the victimizer's control.:34 Victims tend to be people with less power and authority.:7
The role of either victimizer or victim can oscillate within a given relationship, and often each of the participants is convinced that they are the victim. When a group of people acts as the victimizer, gaslighting does its damage through the group members' "small, often invisible actions that have power through their accumulation and reinforcement". Gaslighting has been used by individuals and groups for "attaining interpersonal and social control over the psychic functioning of other individuals and groups".:6
Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation in which a person or a group covertly sows seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or group, making them question their own memory, perception, or judgement. It may evoke changes in them such as cognitive dissonance or low self-esteem, rendering the victim additionally dependent on the gaslighter for emotional support and validation. Using denial, misdirection, contradiction and disinformation, gaslighting involves attempts to destabilize the victim and delegitimize the victim's beliefs.
Instances can range from the denial by an abuser that previous abusive incidents occurred, to belittling the victim's emotions and feelings, to the staging of bizarre events by the abuser with the intention of disorienting the victim. The goal of gaslighting is to gradually undermine the victim's confidence in their own ability to distinguish truth from falsehood, right from wrong, or reality from delusion, thereby rendering the individual or group pathologically dependent on the gaslighter for their thinking and feelings.
In personality disordersEdit
Sociopaths and narcissists frequently use gaslighting tactics to abuse and undermine their victims. Sociopaths consistently transgress social mores, break laws and exploit others, but typically also are convincing liars, sometimes charming ones, who consistently deny wrongdoing. Thus, some who have been victimized by sociopaths may doubt their own perceptions. Some physically abusive spouses may gaslight their partners by flatly denying that they have been violent. Gaslighting may occur in parent–child relationships, with either parent, child, or both lying to the other and attempting to undermine perceptions.
In interpersonal relationships, the victimizer "needs to be right" in order to "preserve [their] own sense of self", and "[their] sense of having power in the world"; and the victim allows the victimizer to "define [their] sense of reality" inasmuch as the victim "idealizes [them]" and "seeks [their] approval".:3 It is a form of emotional abuse with an undertone of maintaining control.
The psychological manipulation may include making the victim question their own memory, perception, and sanity. The abuser may invalidate the victim's experiences using dismissive language: "You're crazy. Don't be so sensitive. Don't be paranoid. I was just joking! ... I'm worried; I think you're not well."
Psychologists Jill Rogers and Diane Follingstad said that such dismissals can be detrimental to mental health outcomes. They described psychological abuse as "a range of aversive behaviors that are intended to harm an individual through coercion, control, verbal abuse, monitoring, isolation, threatening, jealousy, humiliation, manipulation, treating one as an inferior, creating a hostile environment, wounding a person regarding their sexuality and/or fidelity, withholding from a partner emotionally and/or physically".
Gaslighting has been observed in some cases of marital infidelity: "Therapists may contribute to the victim's distress through mislabeling the [victim's] reactions. [...] The gaslighting behaviors of the spouse provide a recipe for the so-called 'nervous breakdown' for some [victims] [and] suicide in some of the worst situations."
In a 1986 paper, Gass and Williams explore certain male behaviors during and after their extramarital affairs and the impact of those behaviors and associated attitudes on the men's spouses. Not only the husbands but also male therapists may contribute to the women's distress through mislabeling the women's reactions and through continuation of certain stereotypical attitudes that reflect negatively on the wife whose husband has had an affair.
In their 1988 article "Gaslighting: A Marital Syndrome", psychologists Gertrude Zemon Gass and William Nichols studied men's extramarital affairs and their consequences on their wives. They described how a man may try to convince his wife that she is imagining things rather than admitting to an affair: "a wife picks up a telephone extension in her own home and accidentally overhears her husband and his girlfriend planning a tryst while he is on a business trip." His denial challenges the evidence of her senses: "I wasn't on the telephone with any girlfriend. You must have been dreaming."
Rogers and Follingstad examined women's experiences with psychological abuse as a predictor of symptoms and clinical levels of depression, anxiety, and somatization, as well as suicidal ideation and life functioning. They concluded that psychological abuse affects women's mental health outcomes, but the perceived negative changes in one's traits, problematic relationship schemas, and response styles were stronger indicators of mental health outcomes than the actual abuse.
Psychotherapist Stephanie Moulton Sarkis explained that it takes "a certain amount of cognitive dissonance to remain connected to a gaslighter" and that "the healthiest way to resolve cognitive dissonance" in such situations involves "leaving or distancing yourself from the gaslighter".:24–25
The psychologist Elinor Greenberg has described three common methods of gaslighting:
- Hiding. The abuser may hide things from the victim and cover up what they have done. Instead of feeling ashamed, the abuser may convince the victim to doubt their own beliefs about the situation and turn the blame on themselves.
- Changing. The abuser feels the need to change something about the victim. Whether it be the way the victim dresses or acts, they want the victim to mold into their fantasy. If the victim does not comply, the abuser may convince the victim that he or she is in fact not good enough.
- Control. The abuser may want to fully control and have power over the victim. In doing so, the abuser will try to seclude them from other friends and family so only they can influence the victim's thoughts and actions. The abuser gets pleasure from knowing the victim is being fully controlled by them.
An abuser's ultimate goal, as described by the divorce process coach Lindsey Ellison, is to make their victim second-guess their choices and to question their sanity, making them more dependent on the abuser. One tactic used to degrade a victim's self-esteem is the abuser alternating between ignoring and attending to the victim, so that the victim lowers their expectation of what constitutes affection, and perceives themselves as less worthy of affection.[verification needed]
Role of genderEdit
Sociologist Paige Sweet, in the context of the social inequalities and power-laden intimate relationships of domestic violence, has studied gaslighting tactics that "are gendered in that they rely on the association of femininity with irrationality".
According to philosophy professor Kate Abramson, the act of gaslighting is not specifically tied to being sexist, although women tend to be frequent targets of gaslighting compared to men who more often engage in gaslighting. Abramson explained this as a result of social conditioning, and said "it's part of the structure of sexism that women are supposed to be less confident, to doubt our views, beliefs, reactions, and perceptions, more than men. And gaslighting is aimed at undermining someone's views, beliefs, reactions, and perceptions. The sexist norm of self-doubt, in all its forms, prepares us for just that." Abramson said that the final "stage" of gaslighting is severe, major, clinical depression. With respect to women in particular, philosophy professor Hilde Lindemann said that in such cases, the victim's ability to resist the manipulation depends on "her ability to trust her own judgments". Establishment of "counterstories" may help the victim reacquire "ordinary levels of free agency".
Psychotherapist Stephanie Moulton Sarkis, who observed gaslighting to be present in about 30–40% of the couples she treats, says that "Gaslighting is as likely to be done by men as women" and that "as far as we know, the genders are represented equally".:27 She explains further that we tend to think gaslighters to be mostly men because "men are often more reluctant (perhaps embarrassed) to talk to someone about a female partner who is being emotionally abusive".:27 An effect of being gaslighted is not being able to feel entitled to your emotions. This effect may be due to the guilt the other person is projecting on you.
In parent-child relationshipsEdit
This section contains too many or overly lengthy quotations for an encyclopedic entry. (April 2020)
Children at the hands of unloving parents may become victims of gaslighting. Psychologically abusive parents often put on a “good parent” face in public yet withhold love and care in private, leading children to question their own perceptions of reality and to wonder whether their parent is the good person everyone else sees or the much darker person that comes out when child and parent are alone. Manipulative parents may also “pit children against each other; ... play favorites but persuade the unloved child it’s all his or her fault for not being more gifted, prettier, and otherwise more lovable.”
Maternal gaslighting of daughters has received particular attention.[further explanation needed] In a section titled “Lying, Gaslighting, and Denial” in her best-seller Mothers Who Can’t Love: A Healing Guide for Daughters, therapist and author Susan Forward describes how a mother's narcissistic behaviors has a negative impact on her daughter. She writes, “A severely narcissistic mother’s anger, criticism, and thoughtless dismissal of her daughter’s feelings are painful and destructive. And every daughter clings to the belief that if only her mother could see that behavior and its effects, she’d stop.” She then goes on to describe that “severe narcissists stay true to form, responding to any confrontation with drama followed by deflection and a focus on your shortcomings. When that doesn’t produce the desired results, they turn to what may be their most frustrating and infuriating tool: denial.” Gaslighting then takes place in the situation as the mothers can “rewrite reality”. As they rewrite reality, it then distorts what is actually reality to the child affected as the reality being told to them doesn't match up with what really happened.
Columnist Maureen Dowd was one of the first to use the term in the political context. She described the Bill Clinton administration's use of the technique in subjecting Newt Gingrich to small indignities intended to provoke him to make public complaints that "came across as hysterical".
In his 2008 book State of Confusion: Political Manipulation and the Assault on the American Mind, psychologist Bryant Welch described the prevalence of the technique in American politics beginning in the age of modern communications, stating:
To say gaslighting was started by the Bushes, Lee Atwater, Karl Rove, Fox News, or any other extant group is not simply wrong, it also misses an important point. Gaslighting comes directly from blending modern communications, marketing, and advertising techniques with long-standing methods of propaganda. They were simply waiting to be discovered by those with sufficient ambition and psychological makeup to use them.
Journalist Frida Ghitis used the term "gaslighting" to describe Russia's global relations. While Russian operatives were active in Crimea, Russian officials continually denied their presence and manipulated the distrust of political groups in their favor.
Journalists at The New York Times Magazine, BBC and Teen Vogue, as well as psychologists Bryant Welch, Robert Feldman and Leah McElrath, have described some of the actions of Donald Trump during the 2016 US presidential election and his term as president as examples of gaslighting. Journalism professor Ben Yagoda wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education in January 2017 that the term gaslighting had become topical again as the result of Trump's behavior, saying that Trump's "habitual tendency to say 'X', and then, at some later date, indignantly declare, 'I did not say "X". In fact, I would never dream of saying "X"'" had brought new notability to the term.
The term has been used in multiple occasion by the comedian and political commentator Jimmy Dore to describe the behavior of politicians and media personalities on both the left and the right sides of the political spectrum. Common uses on social media were often in relation to the movement #ForcetheVote and the inclusion of a Medicare for All platform to allow for universal health care in the United States. This required for a vote in the Upper House of Congress in January 2021 and gaslighting was the terminology used to describe the behavior of people opposed to the policy, as it meant that the politicians or media personalities were concealing their true intentions while still trying to appeal to a base in favor of the policy using convenient information which may or may not be factually correct.
In the workplaceEdit
Gaslighting in the workplace is when people do things that cause colleagues to question themselves and their actions in a way that is detrimental to their careers. The victim may be excluded, made the subject of gossip, persistently discredited or questioned to destroy their confidence. The perpetrator may divert conversations to perceived faults or wrongs. Gaslighting can be committed by anyone and can be especially detrimental when the perpetrator has a position of power.
In popular cultureEdit
Apart from the original play and its two classic film adaptations, there have been several other famous depictions of Gaslighting in popular culture. The 1955 French film Les Diaboliques (and its 1996 remake) features a man and his mistress gaslighting his spouse to scare her to death.
The 2010 Disney film Tangled features Mother Gothel gaslighting her 'daughter' Rapunzel, raising her to fear the outside world and emotionally undermining and manipulating Rapunzel to be dependent on her 'mother'.
Gaslighting was the main theme of a 2016 plotline in BBC's radio soap opera, The Archers. The story concerned the emotional abuse of Helen Archer by her partner and later husband, Rob Titchener, over the course of two years, and caused much public discussion about the phenomenon.
The 2016 mystery and psychological thriller film The Girl on the Train explored the direct effects gaslighting had on the protagonist (Rachel). During her marriage, Rachel's ex-husband Tom was a violent abuser and victimizer. Rachel suffered from severe depression and alcoholism. When Rachel would black out drunk, he consistently told her that she had done terrible things that she was incapable of remembering.
For several months during 2018, gaslighting was a main plotline in NBC's soap opera Days of Our Lives, as character Gabi Hernandez was caught gaslighting her best friend Abigail Deveroux after Gabi was framed for a murder Abigail had committed in the series.
In March 2020, The Chicks released a song titled "Gaslighter", the title track from their album of the same name. The song references this form of manipulation, and was inspired by lead singer Natalie Maines' divorce from actor Adrian Pasdar.
- Alternative facts
- Authority bias
- Big lie – Gross distortion of the truth
- Cognitive distortion
- Creeping normality
- Dangerous Crossing
- Epistemic injustice
- Guilt trip
- Martha Mitchell effect
- Mind games
- Professional abuse
- Setting up to fail
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