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Gaslighting or gas-lighting is a form of mental abuse in which false information is presented with the intent of making victims doubt their 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 1938 stage play Gas Light, known as Angel Street in the United States, and the film adaptations released in 1940 and 1944 motivated the origin of the term because of the systematic psychological manipulation used by the main character on a victim. 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 remembering things incorrectly when she points out these changes. The original title stems from the dimming of the gas lights in the house that happened when the husband was using the gas lights in the attic while searching for hidden treasure. The wife accurately notices the dimming lights and discusses the phenomenon, but the husband insists she is imagining a change in the level of illumination.
The term "gaslighting" has been used colloquially since 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 [gaslighting] 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 ostensibly outlines legal tactics the reader might use to annoy others.
The 2000 Steely Dan album Two Against Nature includes a song entitled "Gaslighting Abbie". Musicians Walter Becker and Donald Fagen explained in an interview that the title refers to the concept of gaslighting as mental abuse. They went on to discuss how the term relates to 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 typically, are also 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 may also occur in parent–child relationships, with either parent, 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 that 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 may 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 emphatically that in such cases the victim's ability to resist the manipulation depends on "her ability to trust her own judgments". Establishment of "counterstories" may help the victim reacquire "ordinary levels of free agency."