- The psychological damage of gaslighting is occurring at a key trusted site: our school lunchrooms.
- Gaslighting destabilizes a person’s sense of truth and reality, and leads to an inability to trust oneself to make good decisions.
- Manipulating others' sense of reality amplifies the power of the institution doing the gaslighting.
The term gaslighting comes from the 1944 film Gaslight, where the plot involves a husband aiming to make his wife believe she is insane by manipulating her environment and invalidating her reality and understanding of her experiences. His strategy is to dim and brighten the gaslights and then insist she is imagining it. He successfully undermines his wife’s sense of truth by confusing and distorting her reality such that she must accept his imposed reality in place of her own. Trust in the person or entity doing the gaslighting is essential for it to be an effective tool to undermine a person’s entire perception of reality. Psychologists and sociologists consider gaslighting a form of abuse.
Institutional Gaslighting and the Role of Trust and Dependency
Pandemic life in America has brought a common feature to our children’s crowded school lunchrooms: institutional gaslighting. We are all vulnerable to institutional gaslighting when we put our trust in and are dependent on an institution, such as a school, to keep our children safe, protected, and in an environment conducive to learning. In the parts of the country where the virus is surging (practically all 50 states right now), kids are panicking about their exposure to COVID-19 in crowded hallways and packed lunchrooms. When a person is predisposed to believe a trusted institution and when that institution is unconcerned with the facts that make a situation or event unsafe, institutional gaslighting has occurred. In the case of crowded school lunchrooms, deliberate ignorance of how the virus spreads is communicated by remaining silent about this everyday lunchroom event, while incongruent actions and false assurances are provided elsewhere, such as emphasizing mask compliance in the classrooms and signs posted to keep physical distance. Students' reality of being in a physical space known to be unsafe—a maskless, crowded lunchroom—is denied by the institution by not providing protections or help.
The Denial of Facts in Plain Sight
Yet, every day in countless lunchrooms across America, as both the New York and Chicago school districts have noted, children are eating and talking loudly, unmasked, in crowded indoor spaces without proper ventilation. This reality goes largely unchallenged, although recently, Dr. Michael Osterholm, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease and Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, has expressed concerns that CDC guidance for schools is outdated because it fails to account for the extremely contagious delta variant.
Even so, the CDC’s current advice to prevent transmission of COVID-19 flat out contradicts the school cafeteria as safe. From the CDC website last updated May 7, 2021, “Prevention of COVID-19 transmission includes physical distancing, community use of well-fitting masks (e.g., barrier face coverings, procedure/surgical masks), adequate ventilation, and avoidance of crowded indoor spaces. These methods will reduce transmission both from inhalation of virus and deposition of virus on exposed mucous membranes.”
This institutional denial of reality goes virtually undetected because we trust and depend on school administrators who tell us they want safe learning and are following CDC and state public health guidance. Students trust and depend on their schools for their safety, health, and protection.
Understanding Institutional Trust and Gaslighting Harm
Gaslighting by individuals and institutions we depend on and trust in is processed differently from those we don’t. We are particularly vulnerable to psychological damage when trusted institutions take actions or take no action that results in harming us. When faced with the blatant denial of the danger of the virus transmitting in a school lunchroom, children may begin to doubt the appropriateness of their trust in schools, and may eventually question their own capacity to ascertain trustworthiness.
Gaslighting is Inextricably Linked to the Social Context
Without challenging the obvious unsafe school lunchroom, we are severely eroding the trust of our children every day. We tell our kids to do activities outdoors because the virus spreads less there. When indoors, we say wearing well-fitted masks protects them and others, and to not gather indoors with large groups without masks, particularly when the vaccination status of others is unknown. Talking loudly unmasked indoors will spread the virus more easily. These actions will keep them and others safe during the pandemic. Then we send these same students to an unmasked indoor mass gathering each and every day to eat in their school lunchroom.
Institutional Gaslighting Erodes Self-Trust
Ever since my kids went back to in-person school, and as delta spreads like wildfire, I’ve been worried about school lunchrooms as potential superspreading events. I asked my daughter how school lunchrooms feel as delta surges.
“The school is flat out ignoring our safety for half an hour every day," she said. "We know this and talk about it. I guess they don’t care about whether or not we get COVID. We do all this stuff that they say protects us—wear masks in class all day, there’s hand sanitizer on the walls everywhere in the cafeteria, but no air purifiers in the lunchroom when we’re all talking loudly unmasked. Hand sanitizer doesn’t clean the air. It feels like the Hunger Games. You have to make life or death decisions every day. Socialize with my friends inside and possibly get sick, kill my parents, teachers, and grandparents, or go outside and eat alone? Kids shouldn’t be expected to make those kinds of decisions every day. We’re not socially distanced. We sit as close together as we do at a dinner table. I feel unsafe, but happy because I’m with my friends. I kind of forget about it because I’m with my friends and we’re all together so I don’t feel scared. There are signs everywhere that say, '3 feet of distance at all times.' Desks are not three feet apart. You can’t socially distance in the hallways. Every passing period is a superspreader event. Most people don’t wear their masks correctly and most teachers have given up on trying to make that happen.”
Repetition of a False Narrative makes it Believable
Students’ realities have been distorted. Recipients of gaslighting often describe feeling as if they are going crazy because their real experiences become surreal experiences. Gaslighting destabilizes a person’s sense of truth and reality and leads to an inability to trust oneself to make good decisions, disorientation, and a vulnerability to interpretations of facts by those with more power. Gaslighting causes a person to feel that they can no longer form or maintain a correct or accurate conclusion about their own experiences. Feelings of worthlessness develop because they can no longer trust themselves or their interpretation of facts.
If we are going to continue to have students eat in their lunchrooms at school in the midst of high community transmission rates, we need to face some uncomfortable truths. As in the film Gaslight, the school systems, in remaining silent about the lunchroom experience, have undermined students’ sense of truth about how the virus spreads. No wonder our kids are depressed, anxious, and traumatized. They’ve been gaslit by the institutions charged with their safety.
Ahern, K. (2018). Institutional Betrayal and Gaslighting. The Journal of Perinatal & Neonatal Nursing, 32 (1), 59-65. doi: 10.1097/JPN.0000000000000306.
Rietdijk, N. (2021). Post-truth Politics and Collective Gaslighting. Episteme, 1-17. doi:10.1017/epi.2021.24
Sweet, Paige. 2019. “The Sociology of Gaslighting.” American Sociological Review 84(5): 851-875.