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Gaslighting's Long and Toxic Reach

Gaslighting plays a role in social schisms, even when we see through it.

Key points

  • Gaslighting is a form of manipulation where a victim is deliberately fed false information that makes them question reality.
  • Harm is typically done when a victim yields cognitive authority to a gaslighter, but even when gaslighting techniques fail, they can cause harm.
  • Gaslighting techniques interfere with the healthy impulse to communicate and argue in a positive way, which can result in a social schism.
Dragana Gordic/Shutterstock
Source: Dragana Gordic/Shutterstock

Gaslighting is now a common term in psychology, and its application is growing. The term originates from the 1944 film Gaslight (based on a 1938 play by Patrick Hamilton) in which a man convinces his wife that she is “losing her mind." This gripping drama shows a pattern of behavior whereby someone close to you lays claim to reality, undermines your own experience – often by downright lies such as, “That didn’t happen, you are imagining it" – and derides you if you protest. The person who is gaslit then becomes dependent on the gaslighter as interpreter of reality, thereby handing significant power over to the gaslighter.

Until recently, discussion of this pattern focused on close relationships. Often these were sexual relationships, where one partner became, over time, isolated from their network of friends and family, grew desperate to please and placate the gaslighter, and lost all self-belief. Gaslighting was then seen not only as a form of abuse but also as a pattern commonly associated with physical abuse. Discussion then extended to the techniques used by cult leaders who made claims about the ending of the world and were able to sustain their story even when their predictions were not realized.

More recently gaslighting has been used to describe patterns in political life, usually in regard to former President Trump and Vladimir Putin. These powerful men appear comfortable and confident denying obvious facts; they cast aspersion on respected sources of information with terms such as “fake news” and this highly general dismissal absolves them from addressing detailed criticism. Victims may on one level know the gaslighter is lying, but come to see their own knowledge as unreliable, so their “knowledge” does not protect them.

I believe that this model of gaslighting – where harm is done when the victim yields cognitive authority to the gaslighter – does not go far enough. Even when gaslighting techniques fail, even when we are not taken in by the lies, they cause harm by creating a schism between those who yield and those who do not.

Gaslighting Is Disorienting and Divisive

When we hear someone present a worldview that is inconsistent with our perspective, our impulse, initially, is to engage in argument — in the broadest sense, as discussion and exploration of different views. This is a healthy impulse, based on our social nature. It is often said that people assume their worldview is the only one, or the only right one, and that they are invested in maintaining it. In fact, people are eager to match their knowledge and understanding against those of others, and then refine and amend their views accordingly. Opposing views raise stress levels in a good way. We begin to marshall our thoughts and articulate our views. Often, we enjoy a to-and-fro wherein our own ideas are rearranged, sometimes only slightly and sometimes significantly. In the toxic atmosphere of gaslighting, however, argument is distorted and becomes a kind of division between tribes.

There is a wonderful, little-used 17th-century word “malverse” that means “to act corruptly in a position of trust.” Taking “corruption” in this context to mean “corrupting the truth,” we can see that this is how the political gaslighter wields and maintains power. Malversity disorients everyone. The supposedly trustworthy person is untrustworthy. Argument is useless because the objective of argument is neither fairness nor truth, but power and control. The good stress that comes with anticipation of a communicative argument becomes the bad stress of threat.

The gaslighter is quick to deliver a clear message: "If you disagree with me or challenge me, you will be dismissed, derided or mocked." In frustration or self-defense, those who spot the gaslighter's lies may resort to the same techniques of dismissing, deriding or mocking the gaslighter's victims. Different groups form, each fixed by various labels suggesting one is good and the other bad.

The healthy impulse of social humans to communicate through argument is quashed. A schism arises in its place, and all become victims of gaslighting.

Facebook image: Dragana Gordic/Shutterstock

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