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Gaslighting is a colloquialism that is loosely defined as "making someone question their own reality".[1][2]

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.[3]


The term is derived from the 1944 film Gaslight,[4] 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.[5] 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".[1] The term is now simply defined as: to make someone question their reality.[2]

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.[5] The American Dialect Society recognized the word gaslight as the "Most Useful" new word of the year in 2016.[6] Oxford University Press named gaslighting as a runner-up in their list of the most popular new words of 2018.[7]

In psychiatry and psychology[edit]

"Gaslighting" is occasionally used in clinical literature but is considered a colloquialism by the American Psychological Association.[1]

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.[8]

"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.[9]: 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.[10] 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).[11][12][13] Dorpat recommended non-directive and egalitarian attitudes and methods on the part of clinicians,[9]: 225  "treating patients as active collaborators and equal partners".[9]: 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.[7]

In philosophy[edit]

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.[14]

In self-help and amateur psychology[edit]

Gaslighting takes two; the "gaslighter" who persistently puts forth a false narrative and the "gaslighted" who struggles to maintain their individual autonomy.[3][15] Typically, gaslighting is only effective when there is unequal power dynamic or the gaslighted has given the gaslighter power and often their respect.[16]

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.[16]

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.[16] Some may gaslight their partners by flatly denying events; even events such as personal violence.[17]

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.[16] 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.[18]

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.[16]

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.[19]

In politics[edit]

Gaslighting is more likely to be effective when the gaslighter has a position of power.[20]

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.[21]

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.[21]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.[22]
  • "Gaslighting" has been as used to describe how leaders and followers of sectarian groups to ensure conformity of any potentially deviating members.[23][clarification needed]

In popular culture[edit]

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,[29] and was inspired by lead singer Natalie Maines' divorce from actor Adrian Pasdar.[30]

In 2019, Anderson Cooper's nightly news roundup, Anderson Cooper 360°, had a special series called "We'll Leave the Gaslight On", dedicated to the lies of politicians.[16]

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.[31]

The 2016 mystery and psychological thriller film The Girl on the Train explored the direct effects gaslighting had on the protagonist (Rachel).[24][32] 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.[33]

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.[34]

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.[35][non-primary source needed]

The February 2000 Steely Dan album Two Against Nature contains the song "Gaslighting Abbie", telling the story of a man gaslighting his wife in order to be with his lover.[36]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c "APA Dictionary of Psychology". American Psychological Association. Retrieved 7 July 2021.
  2. ^ a b "Definition of gaslight (Entry 2 of 2)". Merriam Webster.
  3. ^ a b DiGiulio, Sarah. "What is gaslighting? And how do you know if it's happening to you?". NBC Retrieved 13 July 2018.
  4. ^ "Gaslight". Oxford English Dictionary. Retrieved 25 October 2021. Etymology: the title of George Cukor's 1944 film Gaslight
  5. ^ a b Yagoda, Ben (12 January 2017). "How Old Is 'Gaslighting'?". The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved 2 June 2017.
  6. ^ Metcalf, Allan. "2016 Word of the Year" (PDF). American Dialect Society. Retrieved 6 January 2017. most useful word of the year
  7. ^ a b "Word of the Year 2018: Shortlist". Oxford University Press. Retrieved 15 November 2018.
  8. ^ Gass PhD, Gertrude Zemon; Nichols EdD, William C. (18 March 1988). "Gaslighting: A marital syndrome". Contemp Family Therapy. 8: 3-16. doi:10.1007/BF00922429.
  9. ^ a b c Dorpat, Theodore L. (1996). Gaslighting, the Double Whammy, Interrogation, and Other Methods of Covert Control in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson. ISBN 978-1-56821-828-1. OCLC 34548677. Retrieved 24 April 2021.
  10. ^ Lund, C.A.; Gardiner, A.Q. (1977). "The Gaslight Phenomenon: An Institutional Variant". British Journal of Psychiatry. 131 (5): 533–34. doi:10.1192/bjp.131.5.533. PMID 588872. closed access
  11. ^ Barlow, D. H. (January 2010). "Special section on negative effects from psychological treatments". American Psychologist. 65 (1): 13–49. doi:10.1037/a0015643. PMID 20063906.
  12. ^ Dorpat, Theodore L. (1996). Gaslighting, the double whammy, interrogation, and other methods of covert control in psychotherapy and psychoanalysis. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson. ISBN 978-1568218281. OCLC 34548677.
  13. ^ Basseches, Michael (April 1997). "A developmental perspective on psychotherapy process, psychotherapists' expertise, and 'meaning-making conflict' within therapeutic relationships: part II". Journal of Adult Development. 4 (2): 85–106. doi:10.1007/BF02510083. S2CID 143991100. Basseches coined the term "theoretical abuse" as a parallel to "sexual abuse" in psychotherapy.
  14. ^ Abramson, Kate (2014). "Turning up the Lights on Gaslighting". Philosophical Perspectives. 28 (1): 1–30. doi:10.1111/phpe.12046. ISSN 1520-8583.
  15. ^ Sarkis, Stephanie (2018). Gaslighting: Recognize Manipulative and Emotionally Abusive People – and Break Free. Da Capo Press. ISBN 978-0738284668. OCLC 1023486127.
  16. ^ a b c d e f Stern PhD, Robin. "I've counseled hundreds of victims of gaslighting. Here's how to spot if you're being gaslighted. Gaslighting, explained". Vox. Retrieved 3 January 2019.
  17. ^ Jacobson, Neil S.; Gottman, John M. (1998). When Men Batter Women: New Insights into Ending Abusive Relationships. Simon and Schuster. pp. 129–132. ISBN 978-0-684-81447-6. Retrieved 6 January 2014.
  18. ^ Stout, Martha (14 March 2006). The Sociopath Next Door. Random House Digital. pp. 94–95. ISBN 978-0-7679-1582-3. Retrieved 6 January 2014.
  19. ^ Portnow, Kathryn E. (1996). Dialogues of doubt: the psychology of self-doubt and emotional gaslighting in adult women and men (EdD). Cambridge, MA: Harvard Graduate School of Education. OCLC 36674740. ProQuest 619244657.
  20. ^ Simon, George (8 November 2011). "Gaslighting as a Manipulation Tactic: What It Is, Who Does It, And Why". Psychology, Therapy & Mental Health Resources. Retrieved 13 April 2018.
  21. ^ a b Welch, Bryant (2008). State of Confusion: Political Manipulation and the Assault on the American Mind. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin's Press. ISBN 978-0312373061. OCLC 181601311. gaslighting.
  22. ^ Ghitis, Frida. "Donald Trump is 'gaslighting' all of us". CNN. Retrieved 16 February 2017.
  23. ^ Paolucci, Paul B. (2019). Acquiring Modernity: An Investigation into the Rise, Structure, and Future of the Modern World. Brill. ISBN 978-90-04-39395-0.
  24. ^ a b Gibson, Caitlin (27 January 2017). "What we talk about when we talk about Donald Trump and 'gaslighting'". The Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286.
  25. ^ Dominus, Susan (27 September 2016). "The Reverse-Gaslighting of Donald Trump". The New York Times Magazine. Retrieved 23 January 2017.
  26. ^ Duca, Lauren (10 December 2016). "Donald Trump Is Gaslighting America". Teen Vogue. Retrieved 23 January 2017.
  27. ^ Fox, Maggie (25 January 2017). "Some Experts Say Trump Team's Falsehoods Are Classic 'Gaslighting'". NBC News. Retrieved 8 March 2017.
  28. ^ From 'alternative facts' to rewriting history in Trump's White House, BBC, Jon Sopel, 26 July 2018
  29. ^ Leimkuehler, Matthew (4 March 2020). "Dixie Chicks are back after 14 years with empowering 'Gaslighter' song, announce date for new album". USA Today.
  30. ^ Shaffer, Claire (4 March 2020). "Dixie chicks burn it all down with 'Gaslighter' video". Rolling Stone.
  31. ^ "'Days of Our Lives': Will Gabi Hernandez Face Any Consequences for Her Actions?". 17 November 2018.
  32. ^ Dowd, Maureen (26 November 1995). "Liberties; The Gaslight Strategy". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 31 March 2017.
  33. ^ Yahr, Emily (10 October 2016). "'The Girl on the Train': Let's discuss that twisted ending". The Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved 13 April 2018.
  34. ^ Watts, Jay (5 April 2016). "The Archers domestic abuse is classic 'gaslighting' – very real, little understood". The Guardian. Retrieved 22 April 2017.
  35. ^ Anderson, Wes; Coppola, Roman; Schwartzman, Jason (22 November 2006). "The Darjeeling Limited" (PDF). Retrieved 3 September 2021.
  36. ^ "Two Against Nature Turns 20". 28 February 2020.