Sony Pictures
Sony Pictures

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
Why Does Asparagus Make Your Pee Smell Funny?
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The asparagus has a long and storied history. It was mentioned in the myths and the scholarly writings of ancient Greece, and its cultivation was the subject of a detailed lesson in Cato the Elder's treatise, On Agriculture. But it wasn't until the turn of the 18th century that discussion of the link between asparagus and odorous urine emerged. In 1731, John Arbuthnot, physician to Queen Anne, noted in a book about food that asparagus "affects the urine with a foetid smell ... and therefore have been suspected by some physicians as not friendly to the kidneys." Benjamin Franklin also noticed that eating asparagus "shall give our urine a disagreeable odor."

Since then, there has been debate over what is responsible for the stinky pee phenomenon. Polish chemist and doctor Marceli Nencki identified a compound called methanethiol as the cause in 1891, after a study that involved four men eating about three and a half pounds of asparagus apiece. In 1975, Robert H. White, a chemist at the University of California at San Diego, used gas chromatography to pin down several compounds known as S-methyl thioesters as the culprits. Other researchers have blamed various "sulfur-containing compounds" and, simply, "metabolites."

More recently, a study demonstrated that asparagusic acid taken orally by subjects known to produce stinky asparagus pee produced odorous urine, which contained the same volatile compounds found in their asparagus-induced odorous urine. Other subjects, who normally didn't experience asparagus-induced odorous urine, likewise were spared stinky pee after taking asparagusic acid.

The researchers concluded that asparagusic acid and its derivatives are the precursors of urinary odor (compared, in different scientific papers, to the smell of "rotten cabbage," "boiling cabbage" and "vegetable soup"). The various compounds that contribute to the distinct smell—and were sometimes blamed as the sole cause in the past—are metabolized from asparagusic acid.

Exactly how these compounds are produced as we digest asparagus remains unclear, so let's turn to an equally compelling, but more answerable question:

WHY DOESN'T ASPARAGUS MAKE YOUR PEE SMELL FUNNY?

Remember when I said that some people don't produce stinky asparagus pee? Several studies have shown that only some of us experience stinky pee (ranging from 20 to 40 percent of the subjects taking part in the study, depending on which paper you read), while the majority have never had the pleasure.

For a while, the world was divided into those whose pee stank after eating asparagus and those whose didn't. Then in 1980, a study complicated matters: Subjects whose pee stank sniffed the urine of subjects whose pee didn't. Guess what? The pee stank. It turns out we're not only divided by the ability to produce odorous asparagus pee, but the ability to smell it.

An anosmia—an inability to perceive a smell—keeps certain people from smelling the compounds that make up even the most offensive asparagus pee, and like the stinky pee non-producers, they're in the majority.

Producing and perceiving asparagus pee don't go hand-in-hand, either. The 1980 study found that some people who don't produce stinky pee could detect the rotten cabbage smell in another person's urine. On the flip side, some stink producers aren't able to pick up the scent in their own urine or the urine of others.

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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What Legal Authority Does Judge Judy Have?
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While Judith Sheindlin was a real, live judge—New York City Mayor Ed Koch appointed her to family court in 1982 and then made her Manhattan's supervising family court judge in 1986—she's not acting as one on her show. Neither are any of the other daytime TV judges (whether they passed the bar and served as actual judges or not).

TV court shows don't take place in real courtrooms and they don't feature real trials, though they are usually real cases—the producers often contact parties who have pending litigation in small claims court and offer them the opportunity to appear on TV instead. What you're seeing on these TV court shows is really just arbitration playing dress-up in small claims court's clothes.

Arbitration is a legal method for resolving disputes outside the court. The disputing parties present their cases to a neutral, third-party arbitrator or arbitrators who hear the case, examine the evidence, and make a (usually binding) decision. Like a court-based case, arbitration is adversarial, but generally less formal in its rules and procedures.

The power that Judge Judy and the rest of the TV arbitrators have over the disputing parties is granted by a contract, specific to their case, that they sign before appearing on the show. These contracts make the arbitrators' decision final and binding, prevent the disputing parties from negotiating the terms of the arbitration, and allow the "judges" wide discretion on procedural and evidentiary rules during the arbitration.

TV judges make their decision on the case and either decide for the plaintiff, in which case the show's producers award them a judgment fee, or with the defendant, in which case the producers award both parties with an appearance fee. This system seems to skew things in favor of the defendants and gives them an incentive to take their case from court to TV. If they have a weak case, appearing on the show absolves them of any financial liability; if they have a strong case, they stand to earn an appearance fee along with their victory.

If one party or the other doesn't like the arbitrator's decision, it can really only be successfully appealed if it addresses a matter outside the scope of the contract. In 2000, Judge Judy had one of her decisions overturned for that reason by the Family Court of Kings County. In the case B.M. v. D.L., the parties appeared in front of Sheindlin to solve a personal property dispute. Sheindlin ruled on that dispute, but also made a decision on the parties' child custody and visitation rights. One of the parties appealed in court, and the family court overturned the custody and visitation part of the decision because they weren't covered by the agreement to arbitrate.

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

This post originally appeared in 2012.

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