Gaslighting is a form of manipulation that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or members of a group, hoping to make targets question their own memory, perception, and sanity. Using persistent denial, misdirection, contradiction, and lying, it attempts to destabilize the target and delegitimize the target's belief.
Instances may range from the denial by an abuser that previous abusive incidents ever occurred up to the staging of bizarre events by the abuser with the intention of disorienting the victim. The term owes its origin to Gas Light, a 1938 play and 1944 film. It has been used in clinical and research literature.
The term originates in the systematic psychological manipulation of a victim by the main character in the 1938 stage play Gas Light, known as Angel Street in the United States, and the film adaptations released in 1940 and 1944. In the story, a 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 original title stems from the dimming of the gas lights in the house that happened when the husband was using the gas lights in the attic while searching for hidden treasure. The wife accurately notices the dimming lights and discusses the phenomenon, but the husband insists she just imagined a change in the level of illumination.
The term "gaslighting" has been used colloquially since the 1960s, to describe efforts to manipulate someone's sense of reality. In a 1980 book on child sexual abuse, Florence Rush first 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."
Sociopaths and narcissists frequently use gaslighting tactics. 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 each other and attempting to undermine perceptions.
An abuser's ultimate goal is to make their victim second guess their every choice and question their sanity, making them more dependent on the abuser. A tactic which further degrades a target's self-esteem is for the abuser to ignore, then attend to, then ignore the victim again, so the victim lowers their personal bar for what constitutes affection and percieves themselves as less worthy of affection.
Gaslighting also occurs in examples of school bullying – when combined with other psychological and physical methods, the result can lead to long-lasting psychological disorders and even progress into illnesses such as depression or avoidant personality disorder.
Gaslighting describes a dynamic observed in some cases of marital infidelity: "Therapists may contribute to the victim's distress through mislabeling the woman's reactions. […] The gaslighting behaviors of the spouse provide a recipe for the so-called 'nervous breakdown' for some women [and] suicide in some of the worst situations."
In clinical psychiatry
Psychotherapy and psychiatry have been described as forms of gaslighting wherein the therapist or psychiatrist is characterized by the patient to be of a more sound, all-knowing mind (i.e. an expert). Potentially, this may create a conflict where patients are unable to trust their immediate sense of their feelings and surroundings in favor of the interpretations offered by the therapist, which come in the form of doubt or skepticism at the patient's appraisals and perceptions of the world. Furthermore, gaslighting has been observed between patients and staff in inpatient psychiatric facilities.
In an influential 1981 article, Some Clinical Consequences of Introjection: Gaslighting, Calef and Weinshel argue that gaslighting involves the projection and introjection of psychic conflicts from the perpetrator to the victim: "this imposition is based on a very special kind of 'transfer'... of painful and potentially painful mental conflicts." The authors explore a variety of reasons why the victims may have "a tendency to incorporate and assimilate what others externalize and project onto them", and conclude that gaslighting may be "a very complex highly structured configuration which encompasses contributions from many elements of the psychic apparatus." Dorpat (1994) describes this as an example of projective identification.
With respect to women in particular, Hilde Lindemann argued emphatically 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."
Maureen Dowd was one of the first to use the term, in the political context, to describe 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 describing the prevalence of the technique in US politics of the past few decades, Bryant Welch states in his book State of Confusion: Political Manipulation and the Assault on the American Mind:
To say gaslighting was started by the Bushes, Lee Atwater, Karl Rove, Fox news, or any other extant or 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.
Gaslighting has been used by Russian politicians. In 2014, British film-maker Adam Curtis describes the "nonlinear" or asymmetric warfare utilized by Vladislav Surkov, political advisor to Vladimir Putin, as a form of manipulation intended to assert political control. Surkov used his influence to finance various political coalitions so none of the Russian citizens could know if an organization was created by the government or a grassroots movement. According to Frida Ghitis of the Miami Herald writing for CNN who associates the technique as a form of gaslighting, this extended into Russia's global relations. Russian operatives went to Crimea, while Russian officials continually denied their presence and manipulated the distrust of political groups in their favor.
Journalists at both the New York Times Magazine 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. 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 was a main theme in 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.
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- Gaslighting as a Manipulation Tactic: what it is, who does it, and why by George K. Simon, Ph.D., article on the topic of gaslighting published by Counselling Resource on November 8, 2011
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