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Gaslighting is a form of mental abuse in which false information is presented with the intent of making a victim doubt his or her own memory, perception and sanity. Instances may range simply from the denial by an abuser that previous abusive incidents ever occurred, up to the staging of bizarre events by the abuser with the intention of disorienting the victim.
The term derives from the 1938 stage play Gas Light (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 subsequently insisting that she is mistaken or misremembering when she points out these changes. The title stems from the dimming of the house's gas lights which happens when the husband is using the gas lights in the attic while searching there for hidden treasure. The wife accurately notices the dimming lights, but the husband insists she is imagining the change.
The term "gaslighting" has been used colloquially since at least the 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." The term was further popularized in Victor Santoro's 1994 book Gaslighting: How to Drive Your Enemies Crazy, which outlines ostensibly legal tactics the reader might use to annoy others.
The 2000 Steely Dan album Two Against Nature includes a song titled "Gaslighting Abbie". Musicians Walter Becker and Donald Fagen acknowledged that the lyrics were inspired by the 1944 Gaslight film.
Psychologist Martha Stout states that sociopaths frequently use gaslighting tactics. Sociopaths 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 been violent.
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 woman'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."
Gaslighting can also occur in parent-child relationships, with either parent or child (or both) lying to each other and attempting to undermine perceptions. Furthermore, gaslighting has been observed between patients and staff in inpatient psychiatric facilities.
Some of Sigmund Freud's conduct has been characterized as gaslighting. Regarding the case of Sergei Pankejeff, nicknamed the "Wolf Man" due to his dream featuring wolves which he discussed extensively with Freud, Dorpat wrote, "Freud brought relentless pressure on the Wolfman to accept and to confirm Freud's reconstructions and formulations."
In an influential 1981 article "Some Clinical Consequences of Introjection: Gaslighting", Calef and Weinshel 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."
The authors 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."[note 1] Establishment of "counterstories" may help the victim reacquire "ordinary levels of free agency."