The term may also be used to describe a person ("gaslighter") who effectively puts forth a false narrative which leads another person or a group of people to doubt their own perceptions and become disoriented or distressed. This dynamic is generally only possible when the audience is vulnerable such as in unequal power relationships or when the audience is fearful of the losses associated with challenging the false narrative. Gaslighting is not necessarily malicious or intentional, although in some cases it is.
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The term is derived from the 1944 film Gaslight, which is a story about a husband who uses trickery to convince his wife that she is insane in order to steal from her.
Gaslight/gaslighting was largely an obscure or esoteric term until more recently when it broadly seeped into English lexicon. According to the American Psychological Association, the term "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 simply defined as: to make someone question their reality.
The New York Times first used the common gerund form, gaslighting, in 1995, in a Maureen Dowd column. However, there were only nine additional uses in the 20 years to follow. 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 psychology
"Gaslighting" is occasionally used in clinical literature but is considered a colloquialism by the American Psychological Association.
The article "Gaslighting: A Marital Syndrome" (1988) examines certain male behaviors during and after their extramarital affairs and the impact of those behaviors and associated attitudes on the men's spouses. They conclude that 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.
"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 In a 1997 case study, Lund and Gardiner reviewed 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. Other experts have pointed out ways in which the values and techniques of therapists can be harmful as well as helpful to clients (or indirectly to other people in a client's life). Dorpat recommended non-directive and egalitarian attitudes and methods on the part of clinicians,: 225 "treating patients as active collaborators and equal partners".: 246
Oxford University Press warns that 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.
There are individuals who cannot tolerate disagreement with or criticism of their view of things 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, judgement, and action. This effectively reduces the target's capacity to criticize or respond independently.
In self-help and amateur psychology
Gaslighting takes two; the "gaslighter" who persistently puts forth a false narrative and the "gaslighted" who struggles to maintain their individual autonomy. Typically, gaslighting is only effective when there is unequal power dynamic or the gaslighted has given the gaslighter power and often their respect.
Gaslighting vs relationship disagreement Gaslighting is different from genuine relationship disagreement which is both common and important in relationships. Gaslighting or the "gaslight tango" is distinct in that:
- one partner is consistently listening and considering the other partners perspective and
- one partner is consistently negating the others perception, insisting that they are wrong or telling them that their emotional reaction is crazy or dysfunctional. After a while the listening partner may exhibit symptoms often associated with anxiety disorders, depression, or low self-esteem. The difference with gaslighting is that there is another person or group that's actively engaged in trying to make you second-guess what you know is true and you don't typically experience these feelings with other people.
Why do people gaslight? Gaslighting is a way to control the moment, stop the conflict, ease some anxiety and feel in control. It, however, often deflects responsibility and tears down the other person. Some may gaslight their partners by flatly denying events; even events such as personal violence.
People aren't born gaslighters. 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 co-regulation. People 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., co-morbidity) can be prone to and adept at convincing others to doubt their own perceptions.
Resolving gaslighting power dynamics It can be difficult to extricate from a gaslighting power dynamic:
- Gaslighters must attain greater emotional awareness and self-regulation, or
- Gaslightees must learn that they don't need others to validate their reality and they need to gain self-reliance and confidence in defining their own reality.
Gaslighting can also take place in the workplace when people do things that cause colleagues to question themselves and their actions in a way that is detrimental to their careers.
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 the 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, Russian officials continually denied their presence and manipulated the distrust of political groups in their favor.
- "Gaslighting" has been as used to describe how leaders and followers of sectarian groups to ensure conformity of any potentially deviating members.[clarification needed]
- 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".
- 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.
In popular culture
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.
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.
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.
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.
In Wes Anderson's 2007 movie The Darjeeling Limited, character Peter Whitman asks his brother Jack about the actions of his stalking and controlling girlfriend, saying "Could she be gaslighting you?", after she sneaks a vial of her perfume into his luggage without his knowledge.[non-primary source needed]
- 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: brief history of political manipulation
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Etymology: the title of George Cukor's 1944 film Gaslight
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most useful word of the year
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