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The term gaslighting has been bandied about quite a bit in the last few months. So I am going to take the time to discuss the term a little. This will be a short article, showing its origins and its meaning. I know it is a departure from my usual articles, but I think we can have a little fluff now and then. Since I have such a back log of articles in my que and a huge list of topics for future articles, I will post some of these shorter articles on unscheduled days. I have for some time been just posting them on Tuesdays and Fridays. If I get too far behind with my postings, some of these articles will no longer have any relevance.
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 judgment. 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 misinformation, 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.
The term originated from the British play Gas Light (1938), performed as Angel Street in the United States, and its 1940 and 1944 film adaptations (both titled Gaslight). The term has now been used in clinical psychological literature, as well as in political commentary and philosophy.
The term originates in the systematic psychological manipulation of a victim by her husband in Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 stage play Gas Light, and the film adaptations released in 1940 and 1944. In the story, the husband attempts to convince his wife and others that she is insane by manipulating small elements of their environment and insisting that she is mistaken, remembering things incorrectly, or delusional when she points out these changes. The play’s title alludes to how the abusive husband slowly dims the gas lights in their home, while pretending nothing has changed, in an effort to make his wife doubt her own perceptions. He further uses the lights in the sealed-off attic to secretly search for jewels belonging to a woman whom he has murdered. He makes loud noises as he searches, including talking to himself. The wife repeatedly asks her husband to confirm her perceptions about the dimming lights, noises and voices, but in defiance of reality, he keeps insisting that the lights are the same and instead it is she who is going insane. He intends on having her assessed and committed to a mental institution, after which he will be able to gain power of attorney over her and search more effectively.
The term “gaslighting” has been used colloquially since the 1960s to describe efforts to manipulate someone’s perception of reality. The term has been used to describe such behavior in psychoanalytic literature since the 1970s. In a 1980 book on child sexual abuse, Florence Rush summarized George Cukor‘s Gaslight (1944) based on the play and wrote, “even today the word [gaslighting] is used to describe an attempt to destroy another’s perception of reality.”
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”. 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. 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. Victims tend to be people with less power and authority.
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”.
The illusory truth effect, a phenomenon in which a listener comes to believe something primarily because it has been repeated so often, may occur to a victim during gaslighting.
Signs and methods
As described by Patricia Evans, seven “warning signs” of gaslighting are the observed abuser’s:
- 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.
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.
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.
Gaslighting is utilized by leaders and followers of sectarian groups to ensure conformity of any potentially deviating members.
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.
The term also has relevance in the discussion of personality disorders, psychoanalytic theory and psychiatry. 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.
Of course we can’t leave out gender studies. 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 judgements”. Establishment of “counter stories” may help the victim reacquire “ordinary levels of free agency”
The term gaslighting has become a favorite term among the media, and I am sure it will be around for some time, like other terms and phrases such as “cut to the chase’ and it is “not my first rodeo”. These colloquial terms and phrases like these just never seem to die. Though frankly I am getting pretty tired of the two example I just used. However, unlike my two examples, gaslighting has a much more sinister connotation. Hopefully it is a term that will not be used too frequently. Because its frequent use does not bode well for our future and our society.
en.wikipedia.org, “Gaslight (1944 film)”, By Wikipedia editors; en.wikipedia.org, “gaslight,” By Wikipedia editors;
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