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Gaslighting is a colloquialism, loosely defined as manipulating someone so as to make them question their own reality.[1][2] The term derives from the title of the 1944 American film Gaslight, which was based on the 1938 British theatre play Gas Light by Patrick Hamilton, though the term did not gain popular currency in English until the mid-2010s.[3][4]


The term "gaslighting" derives from the title of the 1944 American film Gaslight,[4][5][6] in which a husband uses trickery to convince his wife that she is mentally unwell so he can steal from her.[7] The title refers to the gaslight illumination of the house, which seems to waver whenever the husband leaves his wife alone at home. The term "gaslighting" itself is neither in the screenplay nor mentioned in the movie. The 1944 film is a remake of the 1940 British film of the same name, which in turn is based on the 1938 thriller play Gas Light set in the Victorian era.

Gaslighting was largely an obscure or esoteric term until the mid-2010s, when it broadly seeped into the English lexicon.[3] According to the American Psychological Association, it "once referred to manipulation so extreme as to induce mental illness or to justify commitment of the gaslighted person to a psychiatric institution but is now used more generally".[1] The term is now defined in Merriam-Webster as "psychological manipulation" to make someone question their "perception of reality" leading to "dependenc[e] on the perpetrator".[2]

The first use of the gerund form, gaslighting, by The New York Times was in Maureen Dowd's 1995 column. They only used it nine additional times in the following twenty years, but then it became much more common.[3] The American Dialect Society recognized the word gaslight as the "most useful" new word of the year in 2016.[8] Oxford University Press named gaslighting as a runner-up in their list of the most popular new words of 2018.[9]

Common gaslighting techniques[edit]

Gaslighters have many techniques, including:[10]

  • Obfuscation: deliberately muddying or overcomplicating an issue.
  • Withholding: pretending not to understand the victim.
  • Countering: vehemently calling into question a victim's memory despite the victim having remembered things correctly.
  • Blocking and diverting: diverting a conversation from the subject matter to questioning the victim's thoughts and controlling the conversation.
  • Trivializing: making the victim believe his or her thoughts or needs are unimportant.
  • Forgetting and denial: pretending to forget things that have really occurred. The abuser may deny or delay things like promises that are important to the victim. Although anyone can deny or delay, the gaslighter does it regularly in the absence of real external limitations. The gaslighter may make up or create artificial barriers to allow themselves to deny or delay that which is important to the victim.

In psychiatry and psychology[edit]

"Gaslighting" is occasionally used in clinical literature but is considered a colloquialism by the American Psychological Association.[1][11]

Since the 1970s, the term has been used in psychoanalytic literature to describe deliberate attempts by perpetrators to manipulate the victims’ perception of self, environment and relationships.[12]

The research paper, "Gaslighting: A Marital Syndrome" (1988), includes clinical observations of the impact on wives after their reactions were mislabeled by their husbands and male therapists.[13] In a case study published in 1977, Lund and Gardiner reviewed a case of paranoid psychosis in an elderly female who was reported to have recurrent episodes, apparently induced by the staff of the institution where the patient was a resident.[14] Other experts have noted values and techniques of therapists can be harmful as well as helpful to clients (or indirectly to other people in a client's life).[15][16][17]

In his 1996 book, Gaslighting, the Double Whammy, Interrogation and Other Methods of Covert Control in Psychotherapy and Analysis, Theo L. Dorpat, M.D. recommends non-directive and egalitarian attitudes and methods on the part of clinicians,[16]: 225  and "treating patients as active collaborators and equal partners".[16]: 246  He writes, "Therapists may contribute to the victim's distress through mislabeling the [victim's] reactions. [...] The gaslighting behaviors of the spouse provide a recipe for the so-called 'nervous breakdown' for some [victims, and] suicide in some of the worst situations."[16] Dorpat also cautions clinicians about the unintentional abuse of patients when using interrogation and other methods of covert control in Psychotherapy and Analysis, as these methods can subtly coerce patients rather than respect and genuinely help them.[16]: 31–46 

This increased global awareness of the dangers of gaslighting does not inspire all psychologists, and some of them have issued warnings that overuse of the term could weaken its meaning and minimize the serious health effects of such abuse.[9]

In self-help and amateur psychology[edit]

Gaslighting is a term used in self-help and amateur psychology to describe a dynamic that can occur in personal relationships (romantic or parental) and in workplace relationships.[18][19] Gaslighting involves two parties; the "gaslighter", who persistently puts forth a false narrative, and the "gaslighted", who struggles to maintain their individual autonomy.[20][21] Gaslighting is typically effective only when there is an unequal power dynamic or when the gaslighted has shown respect to the gaslighter.[22]

Gaslighting is different from genuine relationship disagreement, which is both common and important in relationships. Gaslighting is distinct in that:

  • one partner is consistently listening and considering the other partner's perspective;
  • one partner is consistently negating the other's perception, insisting that they are wrong, or telling them that their emotional reaction is irrational or dysfunctional.

Gaslighting typically occurs over a long duration and not on a one-off basis.[23] Over time, the listening partner may exhibit symptoms often associated with anxiety disorders, depression, or low self-esteem. Gaslighting is distinct from genuine relationship conflict in that one party manipulates the perceptions of the other.[22]


Gaslighting is a way to control the moment, stop conflict, ease anxiety, and feel in control. However, it often deflects responsibility and tears down the other person.[22] Some may gaslight their partners by denying events, including personal violence.[24]

Learned behavior[edit]

Gaslighting is a learned trait. A gaslighter is a student of social learning. They witness it, experience it themselves, or stumble upon it, and see that it works, both for self-regulation and coregulation.[22] Studies have shown that gaslighting is more prevalent in couples where one or both partners have maladaptive personality traits[25] such as traits associated with short-term mental illness (e.g., depression), substance induced illness (e.g., alcoholism), mood disorders (e.g., bipolar), anxiety disorders (e.g., PTSD), personality disorder (e.g., BPD, NPD, etc.), neurodevelopmental disorder (e.g., ADHD), or combination of the above (i.e., comorbidity) and are prone to and adept at convincing others to doubt their own perceptions.[26]


It can be difficult to extricate oneself from a gaslighting power dynamic:

  • Those who gaslight must attain greater emotional awareness and self-regulation,[22] or;
  • Those being gaslighted must learn that they don't need others to validate their reality and they need to gain self-reliance and confidence in defining their own reality.[27][22]

In medicine[edit]

"Medical gaslighting" is an informal term sometimes used to describe when a medical professional does not know how to resolve a patient's condition or want to get involved in a complex situation and downplays a patient’s concerns about their health or tries to persuade them that their symptoms are imaginary. Medical gaslighting is an exploitation of trust.[23]

Health facilities describe patients as Somatic.[14][15][17] This formula and procedure of hospital facilities creates a power dynamic in medicine which results in neglect of a patient's care.[19] Many patients will suffer from failure to continue to find treatment for symptoms.[28][25]

  1. Insider, "Patients Say Doctors Deny Symptoms."[29]
  2. The Washington Post, "Women are sharing their 'medical gaslighting’ stories. Now what?"[30]
  3. Good Morning America Medical Alert, "Data shows women, people of color affected most by 'medical gaslighting.'"[31]
  4. U.S. News & World Report, "'Medical Gaslighting': Are You a Victim?[32]
  5. Medical Alert April 5, 2022 by CNBC titled "Millions of Americans affected by 'medical gaslighting' each year.[33]

In politics[edit]

Gaslighting is more likely to be effective when the gaslighter has a position of power.[29]

In the 2008 book State of Confusion: Political Manipulation and the Assault on the American Mind, the authors contend that the prevalence of gaslighting in American politics began with the age of modern communications:

To say gaslighting was started by... any extant group is not simply wrong, it also misses an important point. Gaslighting comes directly from blending modern communications, marketing, and advertising techniques with long-standing methods of propaganda. They were simply waiting to be discovered by those with sufficient ambition and psychological makeup to use them.[34]

The term has been used to describe the behavior of politicians and media personalities on both the left and the right sides of the political spectrum.[34] Some examples include:

  • "Gaslighting" has been used to describe Russia's global relations. While Russian operatives were active in Crimea in 2017, Russian officials continually denied their presence and manipulated the distrust of political groups in their favor.[36]
  • American journalists widely used the word "gaslighting" to describe the actions of Donald Trump during the 2016 US presidential election and his term as president.[37][38][39][40][41]
  • Columnist Maureen Dowd described the Bill Clinton administration's use of the technique in subjecting Newt Gingrich to small indignities intended to provoke him to make public complaints that "came across as hysterical" in 1995.[42]
  • "Gaslighting" has been used to describe state implemented psychological harassment techniques used in East Germany during the 1970s and 80s. The techniques were used as part of the Stasi's (the state security service's) decomposition methods, which were designed to paralyze the ability of hostile-negative (politically incorrect or rebellious) people to operate without unjustifiably imprisoning them, which would have resulted in international condemnation.[43]

Broader use[edit]

The word "gaslighting" is often used incorrectly to refer generally to conflicts and disagreements.[23][11][44] According to Robin Stern, PhD, co-founder of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, "Gaslighting is often used in an accusatory way when somebody may just be insistent on something, or somebody may be trying to influence you. That’s not what gaslighting is."[11]

Some mental health experts have expressed concern that the broader use of the term is diluting its usefulness and may make it more difficult to identify the specific type of abuse described in the original definition.[9][23][44]

In popular culture[edit]

One of the earliest uses of the term in television was in a 1974 episode of The Six Million Dollar Man. In the second season episode, "The Seven Million Dollar Man", Steve Austin accuses Oscar Goldman, Rudy Wells and nurse Carla Peterson of gaslighting him after all three try to convince him that an incident he saw did not happen.[45]

In 1994, the character Roz Doyle uses the phrase in "Fortysomething", an episode of the American television sitcom Frasier.[46]

In a 2000 interview, the writers of the song "Gaslighting Abbie" (Steely Dan album Two Against Nature) explain that the lyrics were inspired by a term they heard in New York City, "gaslighting", which they believed was derived from the 1944 movie Gaslight. "It is about a certain kind of mind [manipulation] or messing with somebody’s head".[47]

During the period 2014–2016, BBC Radio 4's soap opera The Archers aired a two-year long storyline about Helen who was subjected to slow-burning coercive control by her bullying, manipulative husband, Rob.[48] The show shocked the United Kingdom, sparking a national discussion about domestic abuse.[49]

In the 2016 film The Girl on the Train, Rachel suffered from severe depression and alcoholism. The storyline evolved around Rachel's blackouts as her husband consistently tells her that she had done terrible things that she didn't actually do.[50]

In 2017, the phrase was used to describe Harvey Weinstein's extraordinary measures (see Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse cases § Gaslighting) to gaslight the women he sexually preyed upon, the journalists investigating their stories, and the public.[51][52][53][54][55]

In 2018, NBC's soap opera Days of Our Lives had a months-long storyline about retaliation and Gabi's systematic efforts to have her best friend Abigail committed into a mental health care facility. In the end, Gabi gleefully confessed to Abigail what she had done to her and why.[56]

In 2019, CNN's nightly news commentary, Anderson Cooper 360°, aired 24 episodes about the lies being told by politicians in the news. The segments were named "Keeping Them Honest: We'll Leave The Gaslight On For You, Part __".[22]

In 2020, country music group The Chicks released a song titled "Gaslighter" about a manipulative husband. [57]

In 2022, Merriam-Webster named "gaslighting" as its Word of the Year due to the vast increase in channels and technologies used to mislead and the word becoming common for the perception of deception. [58]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c "APA Dictionary of Psychology". American Psychological Association. Retrieved 7 July 2021.
  2. ^ a b "Definition of gaslight (Entry 2 of 2)". Merriam Webster.
  3. ^ a b c Yagoda, Ben (12 January 2017). "How Old Is 'Gaslighting'?". The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved 2 June 2017.
  4. ^ a b "Gaslight". Oxford English Dictionary. Retrieved 25 October 2021. Etymology: from the title of George Cukor's 1944 film Gaslight
  5. ^ Hoberman, J (21 August 2019). "Why 'Gaslight' Hasn't Lost Its Glow". The New York Times. Retrieved 23 August 2019. The verb "to gaslight," voted by the American Dialect Society in 2016 as the word most useful/likely to succeed, and defined as "to psychologically manipulate a person into questioning their own sanity," derives from MGM's 1944 movie, directed by George Cukor.
  6. ^ Wilkinson, Alissa (21 January 2017). "What is gaslighting? The 1944 film Gaslight is the best explainer". Vox. Retrieved 21 January 2017. to understand gaslighting is to go to the source. George Cukor's Gaslight. The term "gaslighting" comes from the movie.
  7. ^ Thomas, Laura (2018). "Gaslight and gaslighting". The Lancet. Psychiatry. 5 (2): 117–118. doi:10.1016/S2215-0366(18)30024-5. PMID 29413137. Retrieved 1 February 2018.
  8. ^ Metcalf, Allan. "2016 Word of the Year" (PDF). American Dialect Society. Retrieved 6 January 2017. most useful word of the year
  9. ^ a b c "Word of the Year 2018: Shortlist". Oxford University Press. Retrieved 15 November 2018.
  10. ^ "Gaslighting Definition, Techniques and Being Gaslighted | HealthyPlace". Retrieved 29 October 2022.
  11. ^ a b c Holland, Brenna (2 September 2021). "For Those Who Experience Gaslighting, the Widespread Misuse of the Word Is Damaging". Well + Good. Retrieved 2 September 2021.
  12. ^ Shengold, L. L. (1979). Child Abuse and Deprivation: Soul Murder. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 27(3), 533–559.
  13. ^ Gass PhD, Gertrude Zemon; Nichols EdD, William C. (18 March 1988). "Gaslighting: A marital syndrome". Contemp Family Therapy. 8: 3–16. doi:10.1007/BF00922429. S2CID 145019324.
  14. ^ a b Lund, C.A.; Gardiner, A.Q. (1977). "The Gaslight Phenomenon: An Institutional Variant". British Journal of Psychiatry. 131 (5): 533–34. doi:10.1192/bjp.131.5.533. PMID 588872. S2CID 33671694. closed access
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  20. ^ DiGiulio, Sarah. "What is gaslighting? And how do you know if it's happening to you?". NBC News. Retrieved 13 July 2018.
  21. ^ Sarkis, Stephanie (2018). Gaslighting: Recognize Manipulative and Emotionally Abusive People – and Break Free. Da Capo Press. ISBN 978-0738284668. OCLC 1023486127.
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  25. ^ a b Miano, Paola; Bellomare, Martina; Genova, Vincenzo Giuseppe (2 September 2021). "Personality correlates of gaslighting behaviours in young adults". Journal of Sexual Aggression. 27 (3): 285–298. doi:10.1080/13552600.2020.1850893. ISSN 1355-2600. S2CID 234287319.
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  33. ^ "How to recognize 'medical gaslighting' and better advocate for yourself at your next doctor's appointment". CNBC. September 2022.
  34. ^ a b Welch, Bryant (2008). State of Confusion: Political Manipulation and the Assault on the American Mind. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin's Press. ISBN 978-0312373061. OCLC 181601311.
  35. ^ "The Left's Most Naïve Cynics Have Turned on AOC". 22 December 2020.
  36. ^ Ghitis, Frida. "Donald Trump is 'gaslighting' all of us". CNN. Retrieved 16 February 2017.
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  40. ^ Fox, Maggie (25 January 2017). "Some Experts Say Trump Team's Falsehoods Are Classic 'Gaslighting'". NBC News. Retrieved 8 March 2017.
  41. ^ From 'alternative facts' to rewriting history in Trump's White House, BBC, Jon Sopel, 26 July 2018
  42. ^ Dowd, Maureen (26 November 1995). "Opinion | Liberties;The Gaslight Strategy". The New York Times. Retrieved 5 November 2021.
  43. ^ Carol Anne Constabile-Heming & Valentina Glajar & Alison Lewis (2021). "Citizen informants, glitches in the system, and the limits of collaboration: Eastern experiences in the cold war era". In Andreas Marklund & Laura Skouvig (ed.). Histories of Surveillance from Antiquity to the Digital Era: The Eyes and Ears of Power. Routledge.
  44. ^ a b Ellen, Barbara (6 July 2019). "In accusing all creeps of gaslighting, we dishonour the real victims". The Guardian. Retrieved 6 July 2019.
  45. ^ The Six Million Dollar Man. Season 2, Episode 5 'The Seven Million Dollar Man' URL:
  46. ^ "'Frasier': Fortysomething". 1994.
  47. ^ Sakamoto, John (29 February 2000). "The Steely Dan Q&A". The Steely Dan Reader. Retrieved 28 February 2015. Sakamoto: What does the title of the first track, 'Gaslighting Abbie,' mean? Fagen: ..the term 'to gaslight' comes from the film Gaslight... So it's really a certain kind of mind fucking, or messing with somebody's head by... Becker: That's sort of the rich old tradition of gaslighting which we were invoking.
  48. ^ Haider, Arwa. "A cultural history of gaslighting". BBC. Retrieved 22 November 2019.
  49. ^ Watts, Jay (5 April 2016). "The Archers domestic abuse is classic 'gaslighting' – very real, little understood". The Guardian. Retrieved 22 April 2017.
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  51. ^ Shendruk, Amanda; Ossola, Alexandra (11 September 2019). "The memo from Harvey Weinstein's lawyer is a roadmap for how accused predators stay in power". Quartz. Retrieved 11 September 2019.
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  53. ^ Farhi, Paul. "Ronan Farrow overcame spies and intimidation to break some of the biggest stories of the #MeToo era". Washington Post. Retrieved 10 October 2019.
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  55. ^ "Weinstein touts feminist bona fides, casts himself as victim, in new interview". The Times of Israel. Retrieved 16 December 2019.
  56. ^ "'Days of Our Lives': Will Gabi Hernandez Face Any Consequences for Her Actions?". 17 November 2018.
  57. ^ Crone, Madeline (6 March 2020). "Behind the Song: Dixie Chicks, "Gaslighter"". American Songwriter. Retrieved 12 December 2022.
  58. ^ "Word of the Year 2022". Retrieved 29 November 2022.