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What is Gaslighting?

Sony Pictures
Sony Pictures

By Shannon Firth

In Zero Dark Thirty, Jessica Chastain plays "Maya," a CIA officer who, at one point, treats a detainee to a sumptuous dinner to reward him for sharing critical information that she says saved American lives. The thing is, the detainee doesn't remember telling his captors anything. But weak in mind and body, after several sleepless days and nights of torture, he accepts what Maya says as the truth. This is gaslighting.

The term itself was popularized by the 1944 film Gaslight, an adaptation of the 1939 play Angel Street. In the film, starring Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman, "Gregory," played by Boyer, maintains that a gaslight his wife "Paula" (Bergman) sees growing dim then brightening is in fact steady. This small deception is followed by countless others. Paula initially protests her husband's accusations about her "forgetfulness," but in time she questions her every action and memory. In reality, her husband Gregory is plotting to have her committed to an asylum so that he can take her inheritance.

In the book Gaslighting, the Double Whammy, Interrogation and Other Methods of Covert Control in Psychotherapy and Analysis, the late forensic psychiatrist Theodore Dorpat defines gaslighting as a situation in which one individual "attempts to exert control over the feelings, thoughts or activities of another." According to Dorpat, the gaslighting behavior itself is covert — neither "directly hostile" nor "intimidating."

"In order to be effective, gaslighting depends on first convincing the victim that his thinking is distorted and secondly persuading him that the victimizer's ideas are the correct and true ones," writes Dorpat.

In every gaslighting situation there must be a gaslighter, the agent of the abuse, and a gaslightee, his or her target. "Over time you [the gaslightee] begin to feel like you don't know your own mind or you don't know your own reality. Worse than that, you've allowed someone else to define it for you," says Dr. Robin Stern, author of The Gaslight Effect and a research scientist at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence.

In the 2001 French film Amelie, the film's namesake conceives a plan to gaslight a neighborhood grocer for bullying a mentally challenged employee. First, she sneaks inside the grocer's home. Then she replaces his slippers with duplicates in a smaller size, reverses door handles with knobs and swaps his toothpaste with foot cream. In a final triumphant act, she resets the speed dial button on the grocer's telephone to dial a psychiatric institution instead of his mother's home.

Of course, more subtle and prosaic instances of gaslighting abound. In a typical example, one friend makes another friend wait for over an hour every time they meet for drinks. When the person waiting shows that he or she is upset, the tardy friend asks how someone can be so sensitive.

When gaslightees defend their own feelings or character they are dismissed by their gaslighters as crazy, irrational, or uptight. "It's like a magic trick, a sleight of hand. Let me focus your attention here rather than there," Stern told me. "Maybe you are sensitive, but what does that have to do with the other person being late?"

The first stage in gaslighting is disbelief. At this point, a gaslightee views any disagreement as minor, silly, or forgettable. In the second stage, defense, the gaslightee has begun to second-guess himself. The third stage is depression. The gaslightee actually wants to prove the gaslighter right. Then at least he or she can find a way to earn the approval of the gaslighter.

In Stern's experience, the gaslightees are more often women and the gaslighters are frequently, but not always, men. "The women rather than saying 'you can't talk to me like that' will try harder. 'Let me make that meatloaf again. Let me put my outfit together again.'"

Common signs of the gaslight effect are feeling bewildered or confused, suffering from fitful sleep or nightmares, and an inability to remember the particulars of situations involving the gaslighter. Avoiding speaking about a particular relationship with other friends and feeling a loss of happiness are also strong indicators of a gaslighting relationship.

At the core of the worst cases is the idea that individuals feel respect, love, or admiration for their gaslighters. "When we idealize the gaslighter — when we want to see him as the love of our life, an admirable boss, or a wonderful parent — then we have even more difficulty sticking to our own sense of reality," says Stern.

The more conscious gaslighting victims are of these power plays in their early stages, the easier it is to disengage or even to end that relationship. Each case is different, but the first and most important step is to stop trying to gain the gaslighter's approval.

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Big Questions
Are There Number 1 Pencils?
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Almost every syllabus, teacher, and standardized test points to the ubiquitous No. 2 pencil, but are there other choices out there?

Of course! Pencil makers manufacture No. 1, 2, 2.5, 3, and 4 pencils—and sometimes other intermediate numbers. The higher the number, the harder the core and lighter the markings. (No. 1 pencils produce darker markings, which are sometimes preferred by people working in publishing.)

The current style of production is profiled after pencils developed in 1794 by Nicolas-Jacques Conté. Before Conté, pencil hardness varied from location to location and maker to maker. The earliest pencils were made by filling a wood shaft with raw graphite, leading to the need for a trade-wide recognized method of production.

Conté’s method involved mixing powdered graphite with finely ground clay; that mixture was shaped into a long cylinder and then baked in an oven. The proportion of clay versus graphite added to a mixture determines the hardness of the lead. Although the method may be agreed upon, the way various companies categorize and label pencils isn't.

Today, many U.S.  companies use a numbering system for general-purpose, writing pencils that specifies how hard the lead is. For graphic and artist pencils and for companies outside the U.S., systems get a little complicated, using a combination of numbers and letters known as the HB Graphite Scale.

"H" indicates hardness and "B" indicates blackness. Lowest on the scale is 9H, indicating a pencil with extremely hard lead that produces a light mark. On the opposite end of the scale, 9B represents a pencil with extremely soft lead that produces a dark mark. ("F" also indicates a pencil that sharpens to a fine point.) The middle of the scale shows the letters and numbers that correspond to everyday writing utensils: B = No. 1 pencils, HB = No. 2, F = No. 2½, H = No. 3, and 2H = No. 4 (although exact conversions depend on the brand).

So why are testing centers such sticklers about using only No. 2 pencils? They cooperate better with technology because early machines used the electrical conductivity of the lead to read the pencil marks. Early scanning-and-scoring machines couldn't detect marks made by harder pencils, so No. 3 and No. 4 pencils usually resulted in erroneous results. Softer pencils like No. 1s smudge, so they're just impractical to use. So No. 2 pencils became the industry standard.

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Big Questions
What Are Curlers Yelling About?
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Curling is a sport that prides itself on civility—in fact, one of its key tenets is known as the “Spirit of Curling,” a term that illustrates the respect that the athletes have for both their own teammates and their opponents. But if you’re one of the millions of people who get absorbed by the sport once every four years, you probably noticed one quirk that is decidedly uncivilized: the yelling.

Watch any curling match and you’ll hear skips—or captains—on both sides barking and shouting as the 42-pound stone rumbles down the ice. This isn’t trash talk; it’s strategy. And, of course, curlers have their own jargon, so while their screams won’t make a whole lot of sense to the uninitiated, they could decide whether or not a team will have a spot on the podium once these Olympics are over.

For instance, when you hear a skip shouting “Whoa!” it means he or she needs their teammates to stop sweeping. Shouting “Hard!” means the others need to start sweeping faster. If that’s still not getting the job done, yelling “Hurry hard!” will likely drive the point home: pick up the intensity and sweep with downward pressure. A "Clean!" yell means put a brush on the ice but apply no pressure. This will clear the ice so the stone can glide more easily.

There's no regulation for the shouts, though—curler Erika Brown says she shouts “Right off!” and “Whoa!” to get her teammates to stop sweeping. And when it's time for the team to start sweeping, you might hear "Yes!" or "Sweep!" or "Get on it!" The actual terminology isn't as important as how the phrase is shouted. Curling is a sport predicated on feel, and it’s often the volume and urgency in the skip’s voice (and what shade of red they’re turning) that’s the most important aspect of the shouting.

If you need any more reason to make curling your favorite winter sport, once all that yelling is over and a winner is declared, it's not uncommon for both teams to go out for a round of drinks afterwards (with the winners picking up the tab, obviously). Find out how you can pick up a brush and learn the ins and outs of curling with our beginner's guide.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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