Gaslighting is a colloquialism, loosely defined as making someone question their own reality. The expression, which derives from the title of the 1944 film Gaslight, became popular in the mid-2010s.
The term may also be used to describe a person (a "gaslighter") who presents a false narrative to another group or person, thereby leading them to doubt their perceptions and become misled, disoriented or distressed. Oftentimes this is for the gaslighter's own benefit. Normally, this dynamic is possible only when the audience is vulnerable, such as in unequal power relationships, or fearful of the losses associated with challenging the false narrative. Gaslighting is not necessarily malicious or intentional, although in some cases it is.
The term "gaslighting" derives from the title of the 1944 film Gaslight, in which a husband uses trickery to convince his wife that she is mentally unwell so he can steal from her. The title refers to the gaslight illumination of the house which seems to waver whenever the husband leaves his wife alone at home. The term "gaslighting" itself is not in the screenplay or mentioned in the movie. The 1944 film is a remake of the 1940 film of the same name, which in turn is based on the 1938 thriller play, set in the Victorian era, Gas Light.
Gaslighting was largely an obscure or esoteric term until the mid-2010s, when it broadly seeped into English lexicon. According to the American Psychological Association, it "once referred to manipulation so extreme as to induce mental illness or to justify commitment of the gaslighted person to a psychiatric institution but is now used more generally". The term is now defined in Merriam-Webster as "to make someone question their reality".
The New York Times first used the common gerund form, gaslighting, in Maureen Dowd's 1995 column. However, there were only nine additional uses in the following twenty years. The American Dialect Society recognized the word gaslight as the "most useful" new word of the year in 2016. Oxford University Press named gaslighting as a runner-up in their list of the most popular new words of 2018.
In psychiatry and psychologyEdit
The research paper "Gaslighting: A Marital Syndrome" (1988) includes clinical observations of the impact on wives after their reactions were mislabeled by their husbands and male therapists. In a case study published in 1977, Lund and Gardiner reviewed a case of paranoid psychosis in an elderly female who was reported to have recurrent episodes, apparently induced by the staff of the institution where the patient was a resident. Other experts have noted values and techniques of therapists can be harmful as well as helpful to clients (or indirectly to other people in a client's life).
In the 1996 book Gaslighting, the Double Whammy, Interrogation and Other Methods of Covert Control in Psychotherapy and Analysis, Theo L. Dorpat, M.D. recommends non-directive and egalitarian attitudes and methods on the part of clinicians,: 225 and "treating patients as active collaborators and equal partners".: 246 He writes, "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." Dorpat also 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
Some psychologists are not encouraged by this increased international awareness of the dangers of gaslighting, warning that overuse of the term could dilute its potency and downplay the serious health consequences of such abuse.
Some individuals cannot tolerate disagreement with or criticism of their worldview from important individuals in their life (e.g., friends, loved ones, romantic partners). An effective way to neutralize the possibility of criticism is to undermine others' conception of themselves as an autonomous locus of thought, judgment, and action. This effectively reduces the target's capacity to criticize or respond independently.
In self-help and amateur psychologyEdit
Gaslighting is a term used in self-help and amateur psychology to describe a dynamic that can occur in personal relationships (romantic or parental) and in workplace relationships. Gaslighting involves two parties; the "gaslighter", who persistently puts forth a false narrative, and the "gaslighted", who struggles to maintain their individual autonomy. Typically, gaslighting is effective only when there is an unequal power dynamic or when the gaslighted has given the gaslighter their respect.
Gaslighting is different from genuine relationship disagreement, which is both common and important in relationships. Gaslighting is distinct in that:
- one partner is consistently listening and considering the other partner's perspective;
- one partner is consistently negating the other's perception, insisting that they are wrong, or telling them that their emotional reaction is irrational or dysfunctional.
Gaslighting typically occurs over a long duration and not on a one-off basis. Over time, the listening partner may exhibit symptoms often associated with anxiety disorders, depression, or low self-esteem. Gaslighting differs from genuine relationship disagreement in that one party is manipulating the perceptions of the other.
Gaslighting is a way to control the moment, stop conflict, ease anxiety, and feel in control. However, it often deflects responsibility and tears down the other person. Some may gaslight their partners by denying events, including personal violence.
Gaslighting is a learned trait. A gaslighter is a student of social learning. They witness it, experience it themselves, or stumble upon it, and see that it works, both for self-regulation and coregulation. Studies have shown that gaslighting is more prevalent in couples where one or both partners have maladaptive personality traits such as traits associated with short-term mental illness (e.g., depression), substance induced illness (e.g., alcoholism), mood disorders (e.g., bipolar), anxiety disorders (e.g., PTSD), personality disorder (e.g., BPD, NPD, etc.), neurodevelopmental disorder (e.g., ADHD), or combination of the above (i.e., comorbidity) and are prone to and adept at convincing others to doubt their own perceptions.
It can be difficult to extricate oneself from a gaslighting power dynamic:
"Medical gaslighting" is an informal term sometimes used to describe when a medical professional does not know how to resolve a patient's condition or want to get involved in a complex situation and downplays a patient’s concerns about their health or tries to persuade them that their symptoms are imaginary. Medical gaslighting is an exploitation of trust.
Gaslighting is more likely to be effective when the gaslighter has a position of power.
In the 2008 book State of Confusion: Political Manipulation and the Assault on the American Mind, the authors contend that the prevalence of gaslighting in American politics began with the age of modern communications:
To say gaslighting was started by... any 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.
The term has been used to describe the behavior of politicians and media personalities on both the left and the right sides of the political spectrum. Some examples include:
- "Gaslighting" has been used to describe Russia's global relations. While Russian operatives were active in Crimea in 2017, Russian officials continually denied their presence and manipulated the distrust of political groups in their favor.
- American journalists widely used the word "gaslighting" to describe the actions of Donald Trump during the 2016 US presidential election and his term as president.
- Columnist Maureen Dowd 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 1995.
- Comedian Jimmy Dore used "gaslighting" to describe why "The Squad" did not vote as a block on Medicare for All.
The word "gaslighting" is often used incorrectly to refer generally to conflicts and disagreements. According to Robin Stern, PhD, co-founder of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, "Gaslighting is often used in an accusatory way when somebody may just be insistent on something, or somebody may be trying to influence you. That’s not what gaslighting is."
Some mental health experts have expressed concern that the broader use of the term is diluting its usefulness and may make it more difficult to identify the specific type of abuse described in the original definition.
In popular cultureEdit
In 2019, CNN's nightly news commentary, Anderson Cooper 360°, aired 24 episodes about the lies being told by politicians in the news. The segments were named "Keeping Them Honest: We'll Leave The Gaslight On For You, Part __".
In 2018, NBC's soap opera Days of Our Lives had a months-long storyline about retaliation and Gabi's systematic efforts to have her best friend Abigail committed into a mental health care facility. In the end, Gabi gleefully confessed to Abigail what she had done to her and why.
In 2017, Harvey Weinstein took extraordinary measures (see Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse cases § Gaslighting) to gaslight the women he sexually preyed upon, the journalists investigating their stories, and the public.
In the 2016 film The Girl on the Train, Rachel suffered from severe depression and alcoholism. The storyline evolved around Rachel's blackouts as her husband consistently tells her that she had done terrible things that she didn't actually do.
During the period 2014–2016, BBC Radio 4's soap opera The Archers aired a two-year long storyline about Helen who was subjected to slow-burning coercive control by her bullying, manipulative husband, Rob. The show shocked the United Kingdom, sparking a national discussion about domestic abuse.
In a 2000 interview, the writers of the song "Gaslighting Abbie" (Steely Dan album Two Against Nature) explain that the lyrics were inspired by a term they heard in New York City, "gaslighting", which they believed was derived from the 1944 movie Gaslight. "It is about a certain kind of mind [manipulation] or messing with somebody’s head".
- Deception/lying: to limit relationship harm
- Mind games: struggle for relationship superiority
- Superiority complex: defense for feeling inferior
- Naivete: favors moral idealism over pragmatism
- Insecure attachment: desperate to hold onto relationships
- Manipulation: exploiting for personal gain
- Confidence trick: using trust to defraud
- Psychotherapy issues: unintended treatment problems
- Political spin: political propaganda tactic
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Etymology: from the title of George Cukor's 1944 film Gaslight
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The verb “to gaslight,” voted by the American Dialect Society in 2016 as the word most useful/likely to succeed, and defined as “to psychologically manipulate a person into questioning their own sanity,” derives from MGM’s 1944 movie, directed by George Cukor.
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Sakamoto: What does the title of the first track, 'Gaslighting Abbie,' mean? Fagen: ..the term 'to gaslight' comes from the film Gaslight... So it’s really a certain kind of mind fucking, or messing with somebody’s head by... Becker: That’s sort of the rich old tradition of gaslighting which we were invoking.