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For other uses, see Gaslight (disambiguation).
Ingrid Bergman in the 1944 film Gaslight

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.[1][2]

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.[3][4]


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,[5] to describe efforts to manipulate someone's sense of reality. In a 1980 book on child sexual abuse, Florence Rush summarized George Cukor's 1944 film version of Gas Light, and wrote, "even today the word [gaslighting] is used to describe an attempt to destroy another's perception of reality."[6]


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.[7] Some physically abusive spouses may gaslight their partners by flatly denying that they have been violent.[4] Gaslighting may occur in parent–child relationships, with either parent, child, or both, lying to each other and attempting to undermine perceptions.[8]

Gaslighting also occurs in examples of school bullying[9] – 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."[10][11]

In clinical psychiatry[edit]

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.[12] Furthermore, gaslighting has been observed between patients and staff in inpatient psychiatric facilities.[13]

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."[14] 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."[14] Dorpat (1994) describes this as an example of projective identification.[2]

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".[15] Establishment of "counterstories" may help the victim reacquire "ordinary levels of free agency."[15]

In politics[edit]

Donald Trump[edit]

Gaslighting is a term that has generated increasing interest in recent years.[16] Ben Yagoda in the Chronicle of Higher Education in January 2017 credits the surge in popularity to President Donald Trump's behavior, saying:

The new prominence came from Donald 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.'"[17]

Yagoda was referring to some of the actions of Trump during the 2016 US presidential election and his subsequent time as president:

  • Trump was a prominent figure in what was later to be called President Barack Obama’s ”birther” movement. In 2011, Trump voiced skepticism of Obama’s place of birth on Good Morning America.[18] He was cited numerous other times in the media demanding Obama's birth certificate with substantial video evidence. He even tweeted about the movement 67 times.[19] However, during the 2016 presidential election, Trump said he was not a key figure in the birther movement, but that it was the Hillary Clinton campaign when she ran against Obama in 2008 that caused the conspiracy theories.[20][21]
  • At a campaign rally in South Carolina in 2015, Trump did an unflattering impression of a New York Times reporter, Serge Kovaleski who has arthrogryposis.[22] During the third presidential debate of the 2016 Election, Hillary Clinton brought up the incident with the reporter to which Trump famously interrupted with “wrong.”[23]
  • On the day of Trump’s inauguration, The New York Times released a story comparing Trump’s crowd to Obama’s 2009 crowd with pictures indicating Obama had a much larger crowd.[24] Obama’s crowd is estimated to be 1.8 million. Keith Still, a professor of crowd science at Manchester Metropolitan University, estimated trump’s inauguration was about one-third the size of Obama’s.[25] Trump and his administration have insisted that the crowd at his inauguration was the largest in American history — even as aerial photographs, crowd estimates, Metro ridership numbers and witnesses on the scene show otherwise.[26] The White House press secretary Sean Spicer briefed the media with the quote “This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration – period.” Kellyanne Conway defended Spicer by saying he had alternative facts.[27]


Gaslighting has been used by Russian politicians. British film-maker Adam Curtis suggested in 2014 that "nonlinear" or "asymmetric" war (as described by Vladislav Surkov, political advisor to Vladimir Putin) is a form of gaslighting intended for political control.[28] 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. This extended into Russia's global relations, when Russian operatives went to Crimea and the Russian officials continually denied their presence and manipulated the distrust of political groups in their favor. [29][30]

Several intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia tried to use gaslighting tactics to interfere in the 2016 US election and support Donald Trump.[31] This led to the expulsion of Russian intelligence officers and other sanctions on Russia. [32]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Oxford Dictionary definition of 'gaslighting'". Oxford Dictionaries. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 20 April 2016. 
  2. ^ a b Dorpat, Theo. L. (1994). "On the double whammy and gaslighting". Psychoanalysis & Psychotherapy. 11 (1): 91–96. INIST:4017777. (subscription required (help)).  closed access publication – behind paywall
  3. ^ Dorpat, Theodore L. (1996). Gaslighting, the Double Whammy, Interrogation, and Other Methods of Covert Control in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis. Jason Aronson. ISBN 978-1-56821-828-1. Retrieved 2014-01-06. 
  4. ^ a b Jacobson, Neil S.; Gottman, John M. (1998-03-10). When Men Batter Women: New Insights into Ending Abusive Relationships. Simon and Schuster. pp. 129–132. ISBN 978-0-684-81447-6. Retrieved 2014-01-06. 
  5. ^ "gaslight". Oxford English Dictionary (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. September 2005.  (Subscription or UK public library membership required.) 1969 S. C. Plog Changing Perspectives in Mental Illness 83 It is also popularly believed to be possible to ‘gaslight’ a perfectly healthy person into psychosis by interpreting his own behavior to him as symptomatic of serious mental illness.
  6. ^ Rush, Florence (February 1992). The Best-kept Secret: Sexual Abuse of Children. Human Services Institute. p. 81. ISBN 978-0-8306-3907-6. 
  7. ^ Stout, Martha (2006-03-14). The Sociopath Next Door. Random House Digital. pp. 94–95. ISBN 978-0-7679-1582-3. Retrieved 2014-01-06. 
  8. ^ Cawthra, R.; O'Brian, G.; Hassanyeh, F. (April 1987). "'Imposed Psychosis': A Case Variant of the Gaslight Phenomenon". British Journal of Psychiatry. 150 (4): 553–556. doi:10.1192/bjp.150.4.553. PMID 3664141. 
  9. ^[full citation needed]
  10. ^ Gass, G.Z.; Nichols, W.C. (1988). "Gaslighting: A Marital Syndrome". Journal of Contemporary Family Therapy. 10 (1): 3–16. doi:10.1007/BF00922429.  closed access publication – behind paywall
  11. ^ Cawthra, R.; O'Brian, G.; Hassanyeh, F. (April 1987). "'Imposed Psychosis': A Case Variant of the Gaslight Phenomenon". British Journal of Psychiatry. 150 (4): 553–556. doi:10.1192/bjp.150.4.553. PMID 3664141. 
  12. ^ Loftus, Elizabeth F Creating False Memories Scientific American September 1997, vol 277 #3 pages 70-75
  13. ^ Lund, C.A.; Gardiner, A.Q. (1977). "The Gaslight Phenomenon: An Institutional Variant". British Journal of Psychiatry. 131 (5): 533–534. doi:10.1192/bjp.131.5.533. PMID 588872.  closed access publication – behind paywall
  14. ^ a b Weinshel, Edward M. (January 2003). Wallerstein, Robert S., ed. Commitment and Compassion in Psychoanalysis: Selected Papers of Edward M. Weinshel. Analytic Press. p. 83. ISBN 978-0-88163-379-5. 
  15. ^ a b Nelson, Hilde L. (March 2001). Damaged identities, narrative repair. Cornell University Press. pp. 31–32. ISBN 978-0-8014-8740-8. Retrieved 2014-01-06. 
  16. ^ "Google Trends". Google Trends. Retrieved 2017-02-16. 
  17. ^ Yagoda, Ben (2017-01-12) How Old Is 'Gaslighting'? The Chronicle of Higher Education
  18. ^ News, A. B. C. (2016-09-16). "How Donald Trump Perpetuated the 'Birther' Movement for Years". ABC News. Retrieved 2017-02-17. 
  19. ^ News, A. B. C. (2016-09-16). "67 Times Trump Tweeted About the 'Birther' Movement". ABC News. Retrieved 2017-02-17. 
  20. ^ CNN, Gregory Krieg. "14 of Trump's most outrageous 'birther' claims -- half from after 2011". CNN. Retrieved 2017-02-17. 
  21. ^ Barbaro, Michael (2016-09-16). "Donald Trump Clung to 'Birther' Lie for Years, and Still Isn't Apologetic". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2017-02-17. 
  22. ^ "Donald Trump under fire for mocking disabled reporter". BBC News. 2015-11-26. Retrieved 2017-02-17. 
  23. ^ "Did Trump mock disabled reporter or not?". @politifact. Retrieved 2017-02-17. 
  24. ^ Yourish, Tim Wallace, Karen; Griggs, Troy (2017-01-20). "Trump's Inauguration vs. Obama's: Comparing the Crowds". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2017-02-17. 
  25. ^ Frostenson, Sarah. "A crowd scientist says Trump's inauguration attendance was pretty average". Vox. Retrieved 2017-02-17. 
  26. ^ Gibson, Caitlin; Gibson, Caitlin (2017-01-27). "What we talk about when we talk about Donald Trump and 'gaslighting'". The Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved 2017-02-19. 
  27. ^ "Fact check: The controversy over Trump's inauguration crowd size". USA TODAY. Retrieved 2017-02-17. 
  28. ^ Haines, Tim. "BBC's Adam Curtis On The "Contradictory Vaudeville" Of Post-Modern Politics". Real Clear Politics. 
  29. ^ Ghitis, Frida. "Donald Trump is 'gaslighting' all of us". CNN. Retrieved 2017-02-16. 
  30. ^ "An ideologue's exit". The Economist. Retrieved 2017-02-16. 
  31. ^ "Russian propaganda effort helped spread 'fake news' during election, experts say". Washington Post. Retrieved 2017-02-16. 
  32. ^ Lee, Carol E.; Sonne, Paul (2016-12-30). "U.S. Sanctions Russia Over Election Hacking; Moscow Threatens to Retaliate". Wall Street Journal. ISSN 0099-9660. Retrieved 2017-02-16. 

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