“Gaslighting” is an elaborate and insidious technique of deception and psychological manipulation. Its effect is to gradually undermine the confidence of the victim(s) in their ability to distinguish truth from falsehood, right from wrong, or reality from appearance. It is a form of emotional abuse, often with the goal of maintaining control.
“Gaslighting” is derived from the play Gas Light where a manipulative and deceitful husband drives his wife nearly to insanity. It was adapted into the 1940 British film, and later 1944 American remake. The title of the play refers to gas lights in the couple’s home that the husband periodically dims. The wife repeatedly asks her husband to confirm her perceptions about the dimming lights and he insists that the lights have not changed. His intention is to have her committed to a mental institution.
There is often a power dynamic in gaslighting where the target is vulnerable because they are fearful of losses associated with challenging the manipulator. The term first appeared in print in 1969.
Gaslighting in the workplace can include these ploys: The victim may be excluded, made the subject of gossip, persistently discredited or questioned to destroy their confidence. The perpetrator may divert conversations to perceived faults or wrongs.
Psychologically abusive parents often put on a “good parent” face in public yet withhold love and care in private, leading children to question their own perceptions of reality and to wonder whether their parent is the good person everyone else sees or the much darker person that comes out when child and parent are alone. Manipulative parents may also “pit children against each other; … play favorites but persuade the unloved child it’s all his or her fault for not being more gifted, prettier, and otherwise more lovable.”
In his 2008 book State of Confusion: Political Manipulation and the Assault on the American Mind, psychologist Bryant Welch described the prevalence of the technique in American politics beginning in the age of modern communications, stating: “Gaslighting comes directly from blending modern communications, marketing, and advertising techniques with long-standing methods of propaganda.”
Learning the true facts is a difficult business, but well worth the effort.
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