A confession: Before this political season, I had not understood the term gaslighting, so eloquently explained on Friday by my colleague Ben Yagoda. I may have heard it, but only as a conniving manipulation by some politician of whom the writer didn’t approve. Not knowing its provenance, I thought maybe it had something to do with leakage from old-fashioned lighting, such that those who inhaled it sort of lost their minds.
In fact, as Ben points out, the term gaslighting originated with Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play, Gas Light, in which a scheming husband keeps dimming the lights in the apartment while insisting to his wife that they are as bright as ever. The play evolved into a 1944 film starring Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman. Boyer’s character had been convincing his wife that she must be going mad, since reality is no longer what she can perceive with her own eyes and ears.
In the climactic scene, Bergman manages to turn the tables:
As pointed out recently in Slate, the trick is not unlike the swindling tailors’ feat in “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” telling people that their naked emperor is clothed in finery. But Hans Christian Andersen’s story has an instructive twist: The tailors began by claiming that their magical cloth would be invisible to any who were unfit for their roles. The people didn’t consider that they either were being fooled or had gone mad; they considered that they could be judged incompetent and (even the emperor himself) fired.
“Everyone did his best,” Andersen writes, “to seem well pleased.” In other words, they were all lying in order not to lose their grip on their place in society. Whether each thought his neighbor was also lying is left unsaid in the story; Andersen writes only, “Nobody would confess that he couldn’t see anything, for that would prove him either unfit for his position, or a fool.”
We find a more pointed example of what political scientists call “pluralistic ignorance” in the former Soviet-bloc countries, where a majority held views contrary to the regime but supposed that their neighbors accepted the regime’s legitimacy. But in both “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and, say, the reign of the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, the authority of the government crashes quickly once the con is exposed, because people are never truly convinced of a narrative that contradicts the evidence of their senses and reason.
In 1951, the social psychologist Solomon Asch conducted a series of experiments in which a subject entered a room full of people who “agreed” that, of the three lines in Exhibit 2 in the box below, either line B or line C, but not line A, matches the line in Exhibit 1.
Out of 50 subjects, 37 concluded that the others in the room were correct. Interviewed after the experiment, most admitted that they had falsely reported their own conclusions, going along with the group in order not to be ostracized; only a few had been truly convinced of a conclusion that defied the evidence of their own eyes.
Those few were being gaslighted. In view of the Patrick Hamilton play, and of the term’s increasing use to describe cases of domestic abuse, it’s not surprising that only a small percentage of random psychological subjects, albeit conformist, were not truly persuaded that their own cognitive processes were off-base.
To gaslight effectively, I suspect, your victims must be somehow emotionally cathected to you. Thus a beloved husband can gaslight his wife; thus a charismatic dictator can gaslight many of his subjects. By fostering insecurity, by loudly asserting as truth various “facts” and narratives that make no sense, the gaslighter gains a kind of emotional access that will eventually trump his victims’ reasoning.
The term has become so popular that we risk misusing it. Take the account of a staff member of Senator Ted Cruz being publicly subjected to false rumors of a sexual affair: “I was gaslit,” she wrote. “I was trapped inside an alternate reality. But … I was surrounded by friends, family, and colleagues who helped me stand firm in my truth.”
Yes, a community of support can deflect efforts to gaslight. But the term itself was misappropriated in that instance: Slander and smearing are not the same as gaslighting. On the other hand, for example, given our attachment to sugar and the emotional persuasiveness of advertising, it’s fair to say that industry-sponsored claims are managing to gaslight those who would otherwise (and reasonably) trust the enormous evidence of sugar’s harmfulness.
Meanwhile, when we consider new political positions being taken by apparently intelligent figures, it’s impossible to tell, from the outside, whether they have subsumed their own reasoning powers to the narrative of someone who has emotional control over them, or whether they are merely playing a part, like the noblemen who took hold of the emperor’s “mantle”: “Then they pretended to lift and hold it high. They didn’t dare admit they had nothing to hold.”