Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse in which false information is presented with the intent of making a victim doubt his or her own memory and perception. It may simply be the denial by an abuser that previous abusive incidents ever occurred, or it could be the staging of bizarre events by the abuser with the intention of disorienting the victim.
The term "gaslighting" comes from the play Gas Light and its film adaptations. In those works a character uses a variety of tricks to convince his spouse that she is crazy, so that she won't be believed when she reports strange things that are genuinely occurring, including the dimming of the gas lamps in the house (which happens when her husband turns on the normally unused gas lamps in the attic to conduct clandestine activities there). Since then, it has become a colloquial expression that is now also used in clinical and research literature.
The term derives from the 1938 stage play Gas Light (originally known as Angel Street in the United States), and the 1940 and 1944 film adaptations. The plot concerns a husband who attempts to convince his wife and others that she is insane by manipulating small elements of their environment, and insisting that she is mistaken or misremembering when she points out these changes. The title stems from the husband's subtle dimming of the house's gas lights, which she accurately notices and which the husband insists she's imagining.
The term "gaslighting" has been used colloquially since at least the late 1970s to describe efforts to manipulate someone's sense of reality. In a 1980 book on child sex abuse, Florence Rush summarized George Cukor's 1944 film version of Gas Light, and writes, "even today the word [gaslight] is used to describe an attempt to destroy another's perception of reality".
In an influential article "Some Clinical Consequences of Introjection: Gaslighting", the authors 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'.
They 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 can be 'a very complex, highly structured configuration which encompasses contributions from many elements of the psychic apparatus'.
With respect to women in particular, Hilde Lindemann argued that "in gaslighting cases...ability to resist depends on her ability to trust her own judgements." Establishing "counterstories" to that of the gaslighter may help the victim re-acquire or even for the first time "acquire ordinary levels of free agency".
Psychologist Martha Stout states that psychopaths frequently use gaslighting tactics. Psychopaths consistently transgress social mores, break laws, and exploit others, but are also typically charming and convincing liars who consistently deny wrongdoing. Thus, some who have been victimized by sociopaths may doubt their perceptions. Jacobson and Gottman report that some physically abusive spouses may gaslight their partners, even flatly denying that they have used violence.
Psychologists Gertrude Gass and William C. Nichols use the term "gaslighting" to describe a dynamic observed in some cases of marital infidelity: "Therapists may contribute to the victim's distress through mislabeling the women's reactions. [...] The gaslighting behaviors of the husband provide a recipe for the so-called 'nervous breakdown' for some women [and] suicide in some of the worst situations."
^Dorpat, Theodore L. (28 October 1996). Gaslighting, the double whammy, interrogation, and other methods of covert control in psychotherapy and psychoanalysis. J. Aronson. ISBN 9781568218281. http://books.google.com/books?id=3vLaAAAAMAAJ. Retrieved 16 June 2011.
^Jacobson, Neil S.; Gottman, John Mordechai (10 March 1998). When men batter women: new insights into ending abusive relationships. Simon and Schuster. pp. 129–132. ISBN 9780684814476. http://books.google.com/books?id=PXvhE_AD084C. Retrieved 16 June 2011.
^Rush, Florence (February 1992). The best-kept secret: sexual abuse of children. Human Services Institute. p. 81. ISBN 9780830639076. http://books.google.com/books?id=GXgDjnFL2xcC. Retrieved 16 June 2011.
^ abWeinshel, Edward M.; Wallerstein, Robert S. (January 2003). Commitment and compassion in psychoanalysis: selected papers of Edward M. Weinshel. Analytic Press. p. 83. ISBN 9780881633795. http://books.google.com/books?id=mwf0ZOUli6wC. Retrieved 16 June 2011.
^ abNelson, Hilde Lindemann (March 2001). Damaged identities, narrative repair. Cornell University Press. pp. 31–32. ISBN 9780801487408. http://books.google.com/books?id=EjL9qyGmJF4C. Retrieved 16 June 2011.
^Stout, Martha (14 March 2006). The Sociopath Next Door. Random House Digital. pp. 94–95. ISBN 9780767915823. http://books.google.com/books?id=PyOjlz_2SG0C. Retrieved 16 June 2011.
^Gass, Gertrude Zemon; Nichols, William C. (1988). "Gaslighting: A marital syndrome". Journal of Contemporary Family Therapy10 (1): 3–16. doi:10.1007/BF00922429.