What does 'gaslighting' mean?

December 6, 2018 by Jessamy Gleeson, The Conversation
Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer in Gaslight (1944), the film that inspired the now widely used term. Credit: Metro Goldwyn-Mayer

Shortlisted for the Oxford English Dictionary's 2018 word of the year, "gaslighting" has well and truly found its way into contemporary thought and vernacular.

The term has recently been employed to explain the behaviour of contestants on The Bachelor Australia, Monica Lewinksy's experiences with the media post-Bill Clinton, and the words of US President Donald Trump.

But what, exactly, does it mean? Where did it come from? And why is it experiencing a resurgence today?

Gaslighting takes its name from the 1944 film Gaslight, starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer (itself based on the 1938 play Gas Light). In the film, Paula (Bergman) is deliberately and gradually manipulated by her husband, Gregory (Boyer), into believing she is insane. Paula's late aunt's priceless jewels are hidden in their house: if Paula is declared insane and committed to an asylum, Gregory can search for the jewels in peace.

One of his main tactics in convincing Paula she is losing her mind is his manipulation of the gaslights in their home. Whenever he sneaks off to the attic to search for the jewels, he switches on the lights in that part of the house: this leads all other lights to flicker and dim. Upon returning to Paula, he denies all knowledge of this, leading her to question her sanity.

In the film's final scenes, Paula allows a policeman to enter the house while Gregory is preoccupied with his search. The policeman confirms that the lights are flickering, demonstrating that Paula is not insane.

What does gaslighting look like?

Gaslighting is a new term for a relatively old set of behaviours. If you've read the ancient Greek myth of Cassandra (about a woman cursed to foresee true prophecies that others disbelieve due to her perceived mental instability), watched The Truman Show, or listened to Shaggy's hit song, It Wasn't Me (in which a man tells his girlfriend it wasn't him she saw having sex with another woman), you've seen gaslighting in action.

Although it can cover various behaviours, the central tenet of gaslighting is the psychological manipulation of a person in order to erode their sense of self and sanity.

The behaviour itself is not always deliberate, in that the perpetrator may not have consciously set out to distort another person's experience of reality. But gaslighting is often used as a method of power and control.

Common gaslighting tactics can include denial of the gaslightee's experience ("That wasn't what happened!"), escalation ("Why would you question this? I wouldn't lie to you!"), trivialisation ("You're too sensitive, this is nothing"), and countering ("That wasn't what happened, this was").

Why now?

Gaslighting's re-emergence in our day-to-day vernacular is in part due to a wider societal focus on violence against women. As we move towards a broader understanding of what constitutes abuse, there is growing recognition that psychologically abusive techniques such as gaslighting are often used to unnerve and demoralise others.

Gaslighting is increasingly being recognised as a technique of abuse by groups such as the Domestic Violence Resource Centre of Victoria and Safe Steps.

The term also rebuts a common set of stereotypes: the "crazy ex-girlfriend", the "bitches be crazy" or "psycho bitch" refrain and the "hysterical woman". Gaslighting reframes these cliches: instead of asking whether women are indeed crazy, it questions the motivations of the accuser.

Unfortunately, gaslighting has also been used to dismiss those who have employed #MeToo to speak out about their abuse. Comments directed to survivors that they must have "misread the situation" or "imagined the abuse" can in turn point to wider questions about a person's sanity.

Gaslighting's application in the public lexicon has become quite broad. For instance, many news articles have been written about Donald Trump's so-called gaslighting behaviour towards the American public, in which he has tried to manipulate people into "doubting their reality".

In a recent speech, for example, Trump criticised the media for its reaction to his trade tariffs policy, accusing it of broadcasting "" and telling people, "what you are seeing and what you are reading is not what's happening".

But in describing Trump's behaviour as gaslighting, we lose some of the word's context: it was developed to describe altogether more intimate and controlling in nature, and difficult to escape.

Still, aside from the latter example, the growing usage of "gaslighting" as a term is broadly a good thing. It signifies a deeper understanding of what abuse looks like and the many forms it can take.

Explore further: From Love Island to HD brows, what you need to know about narcissism

Related Stories

From Love Island to HD brows, what you need to know about narcissism

July 18, 2018
The TV show of the summer, Love Island, is fascinating for many viewers – but especially so for personality psychologists. Mainly because the programme is a parade of rampant narcissism. Even if you can't quite define it, ...

Older kids who abuse animals much more likely to have been abused themselves

July 17, 2018
Older children who abuse animals are two to three times as likely to have been abused themselves as kids that don't display this type of behaviour, highlights a review of the available evidence published online in the Archives ...

Exposure to psychological domestic abuse most damaging to children's wellbeing

May 15, 2017
Exposure to psychological abuse between parents is more damaging to children's wellbeing as they grow older than physical domestic violence, according to new research carried out at University of Limerick (UL), Ireland.

S​upport​ programmes for​ perpetrators of domestic abuse are controversial, but new research finds they bring benefits

December 22, 2017
Domestic abuse is a major health and social issue that affects the lives of millions of people, most of them women, across the world. Our recent research shows that programmes to help abusers are proving to be effective in ...

Recommended for you

Levels of gene-expression-regulating enzyme altered in brains of people with schizophrenia

December 14, 2018
A study using a PET scan tracer developed at the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) has identified, for the first time, epigenetic differences between the brains of individuals ...

Researchers discover abundant source for neuronal cells

December 13, 2018
USC researchers seeking a way to study genetic activity associated with psychiatric disorders have discovered an abundant source of human cells—the nose.

New genetic clues to early-onset form of dementia

December 13, 2018
Unlike the more common Alzheimer's disease, frontotemporal dementia tends to afflict young people. It accounts for an estimated 20 percent of all cases of early-onset dementia. Patients with the illness typically begin to ...

How teens deal with stress may affect their blood pressure, immune system

December 13, 2018
Most teens get stressed out by their families from time to time, but whether they bottle those emotions up or put a positive spin on things may affect certain processes in the body, including blood pressure and how immune ...

Increased motor activity linked to improved mood

December 12, 2018
Increasing one's level of physical activity may be an effective way to boost one's mood, according to a new study from a team including scientists at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in collaboration with the ...

Length of eye blinks might act as conversational cue

December 12, 2018
Blinking may feel like an unconscious activity, but new research by Paul Hömke and colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, suggests that humans unknowingly perceive eye blinks as nonverbal cues when ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.