Traditional gaslighting is a cooperative act in which one person says and does things that cause a second person to begin to doubt their sanity. I spoke about it in the post Gas Lighting – Vice-Signalling And A Lack Of Self-Respect. It is highly controlling, it is regarded as a form of mental abuse, and it is a partnership of sorts. There is a clear perpetrator, the individual who is trying to get someone else to believe things that are not true and to then begin to loss confidence in the accuracy of their subjective experience of reality, and victim, the individual who is being manipulated. Doubt is the internal state that the perpetrator is trying to trigger and once it has been activated, the gaslighting of the victim has been successful.
Gaslighting is similar but it is a distinct type of mind control than those methods employed by cult leaders. Group manipulation relies on the buy-in from other members of the group to influence the more skeptical members. The entire group is subjected to the same consistent messaging and, overtime, people will either conform or leave. Those who choose to leave are labelled as treacherous and are shunned by those who choose to remain. Dissenting, balanced, and alternative opinions are not allowed and great control is taken to make sure the group is never exposed to them.
While cult leaders will achieve their goal using many of the same tactics as the gaslighter, the main differences is in scale. The cult leverages the other members of the group to ensure buy-in – an uninitiated or unconvinced cult member will hear the message from the leader and feel social pressure from the other members. With gaslighting, the gaslighter tends to work alone in a one to one relationship between them and their victim. Starting a cult is much harder and requires some skill and the possession of some very specific traits by the leader – charisma, passion, unflappability – but once it gets going, the unified actions of the group present a collective message so forcefully that it by-passes or overwhelms the normal resistance to bullshit. Gaslighting on the other hand is easier to do but it is more fragile and will erode very quickly in the face of external information that causes the victim to gain a more balanced perspective.
With gaslighting, it is the traits of the victim and how they are expressed that determine the effectiveness of the manipulation – they feel close to the perpetrator, they trust the people they are close to, they tend to less skeptical, they defer to others as the source of expertise in areas that they have sufficient experience to know what is what, they are high in agreeableness, they tend to avoid conflict, they accept as true or potentially true things that others would immediately doubt, they do not want to do anything that would cause friction with the person who is gaslighting them, etc…. There is nothing wrong with how they process sensory input and the information that their brains generate, they just choose to process things differently under certain circumstances. However, the instant they begin to push back against the other person, and accept and endure the negative emotion associated with doing so, is the moment of liberation. Once other sources of information begin to flow in, they instantly start to reframe their understanding of the world. The outcome tends to favour objective reality as they quickly learn that the other person is full of shit and has been manipulating them.
Critical to traditional gaslighting is the use of counter factual statements in an ongoing and consistent way, along with the use of demonstrable lies. Both are very effective tools for achieving a state of doubt or uncertainty. Counter factual statements act as conditional justifications to explain something, but rely on a non-factor or a non-occurrence to do the heavy lifting. They take the form of “if, then,” “and yet,” or “yes, but” to complicate things and distract the victim from the known facts. They are gentle or subtle ways to influence ones thinking. Lies, on the other hand, are hyper direct and serve to change what the victim believes or knows to be true.
With gaslighting by proxy, none of these tools are used. In fact, if we were to book end the events that comprise the gaslighting by proxy we would notice that there is nothing untruthful or demonstrably wrong ever said. The perpetrator does not lie and will tend to speak fairly directly and concisely about the facts and events. The adherence to the truth is very context specific, however, and these moments will occur randomly. It is this quality about them that make this such an effective way of manipulating people.
Historically, a liar tells lies while a truth teller tells the truth. Unfortunately, this binary way of thinking about the world and about the actions of people is a heuristic that sacrifices specificity in favour of cognitive ease. Once we label someone as a “truth teller” or a “liar,” we enable an automatic evaluation process that has us believe or not believe a person. Generally, we will listen to a truth teller and ignore a liar. But this is just the general case. Our brain cannot help but listen to and hear, to some extent, the words of a liar when they are speaking. This doesn’t matter at all when what they say is untrue – we hear it and the brain ignores or filters it out – but when what they say is true, more cognitive effort is required to fully process the statements and make sense of the world. At best, it is mentally taxing and requires a lot of deliberate effort to maintain an accurate view of things. More likely though, because of the energy demands of keeping things clear, will be a reevaluation of the person some distance away from the “liar” label and an off-line reframing of the world to reflect this change in status.
This is an error that corrupts long term memory and pollutes our heuristic database with a rule that does not reflect reality.
Consider what our brain needs to do when it is confronted with evidence that a known truth-teller knowingly told a lie. Depending on how well and how long we have known them, we might be willing to give them the benefit of the doubt and change nothing about what we have stored. We may create a conditional rule to capture situations under which the person may not tell the truth. Or we may update their label to “liar” and set about ignoring them. The length of time and the amount of experience we have with them will impact how we respond. Strangely, the better we know them the tougher we will be on them. The false statements of spouses, best friends, and adult relatives will have a much bigger effect than the lies of a TV personality, politician, acquaintance or more distant relative. Those held in higher regard will fall much further and much faster than those who do not factor into our life very much. Regardless, in most cases, finding out that someone we considered to be a truth-teller has the capability and willingness to say things that are not true will result in a reduction in our tendency to believe without evaluation.
When we now think about the opposite situation – a liar tells the truth – the reaction is confusingly different in terms of proportion and weight. They have a track record of lying, which means we will keep our psychological distance from them and that they will not be very important to us. Because we do not care about them, we have not been hurt by their lies. In fact, our evaluation of them is probably so low that we are not impacted by the things they say. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being complete non-factor and 10 referring to an extremely important and critical component to our life, the known liar is a 1 and close friends, immediate family and significant others are tens.
These rankings matter and come to be because of how we share the burden of understanding the world among all of the people that we know. With 10 out of 10 people, we lean on their brain and intellectual processing to help manage and maintain certain aspects of our world view; either through shared experience, individual expertise, or the innate ability to connect with other living beings in a synergistic way. When we learn that one of these top tier people is not completely trustworthy, we lose this ability to share the cognitive burden of understanding the world well enough to thrive. It is psychologically damaging and can be very destabilizing. When the same thing happens with a 5 out of 10, there is a much lower impact. Imagine finding-out that a client had lied to you about something. It might be annoying, but it will not trigger an existential crisis. A 1 out of 10 person lying to you will have little to no impact and it may not ever register that you have been lied to.
So when a known and labelled “liar,” or a one, says something that is untrue, we do not need to do anything in response to it. Our world view already includes the information that they do not tell the truth. However, when they tell the truth, the automatic reaction, to ignore, creates an output that is not congruent with reality. The binary labelling of liar fails to capture the possibility, more accurately the reality, that sometimes they are going to tell the truth. No one is always just on thing. Our prediction that they will lie is shown to be inaccurate, throwing a error, and forcing our brain to open-up to new information in an earnest attempt to get clarity on what has happened in order to update the rule to allow for more accurate predictions.
This is the essence and mechanism of gaslighting by proxy.
Assume that we are the intended victim and that a politician is the perpetrator. They want to lower our confidence in the understanding of the world that we possess because they have realized that they need us to believe them for some reason – say reelection. We know they are liars because in the past they have said a lot of things that are not true, so they have a very low ranking – 1 out of 10. As such, we do not spend much time considering what they say. However, as they get closer to the next election, they begin to say more things that are actually true. It isn’t that they stop lying, they just being to tell the truth more frequently. Eventually we begin to hear these true statements and will immediately begin to update our world view to include the fact that they do not always lie or, the affirmative, that they do tell the truth. This is all that is required to trigger the reframing process. It does not matter at all that the next thing they say is a lie because we already knew they lied thus eliminating the need for any reframing.
This puts us into an interesting position. If we deliberately stop the reframing process, it will cause a level of anxiety because our brain will be aware that it is running a rule that is not accurate. If we take action to eliminate the negative emotion associated with the now revealed inaccurate rule and allow the reframing process to run its course, we open ourselves up to being manipulated. The reason is very simple, the reframing will only ever go in one direction, away from the “liar” and towards “truth teller.” Since they were already a labelled “liar” and given a low significance in our life, the movement cannot go any further and will only go in the opposite direction. But the moment the reframe moves at all, it will never go back because the person has shown that they can tell the truth therefore the binary all or nothing poles cannot ever be reached again. They will never be a liar nor will they ever be a “truth teller,” they will be something in between.
Since the goal of any type of gaslighting is to create doubt, this middle ground is exactly where they want us to be. It isn’t necessarily a hopeless situation. We are able to take the time to evaluate every claim they make for accuracy, but this requires effort and is deliberate mental work, both of which serve as disincentives to doing it. But unless the work is done, we will never be certain of the truth or falsehood of their statements.
This is the by proxy aspect of this form of gaslighting. WE are the proxy. How our brain reacts to them telling the truth is what causes the doubt to surface. Whether or not they previously set about trying to convince anyone that their lies were true is not relevant – that is they do not have to have participated in traditional gaslighting. What triggers the process to happen is the fact that historically they have a pattern of lying and suddenly they begin to tell the truth from from time to time.
One could argue that the truth statements of a pathological liar are not important, and this would be a bad argument. The truth matters, facts are important because they impact the world in very real ways. It is not responsible to disbelieve a factual statement simply because it was made by a habitual liar as doing this will cause the brain to update existing long term memories with incorrect information. It is equally irresponsible to believe a false statement simply because it was made by someone who occasionally tells the truth. And this is why gaslighting by proxy chips away at our certainty about the world. The perpetrator is using our own brain to do the leg work to foster doubt, and they using the truth to cause this to happen.
The video below is the second half of the True Hollywood Stories – Rick James bit from the Chappelle show. It is not safe for work due to language, simulated violence, and drug references. I have included it because it contains an example of behaviour that mimics gaslighting by proxy and not because it is an example gaslighting by proxy. However, when you watch it, notice the part with James talking that they repeat and pay particular attention to what happens in your brain and how you feel the wrongness of what you have just heard. When our brain sets about addressing this type of discomfort we open ourselves up to gaslighting by proxy.
I have watched this bit dozens times and continue to feel my brain stumble. And it is a big stumble, one that I am powerless to NOT notice. I laugh because the context provides the necessary cues for my brain to know how to regain its stride – it is the Chapelle show and Charlie Murphy is doing most of the story telling so it is intended to by funny, even if it is relating some aspect of the truth.
But without the context to determine what to do with the information, the brain will simply treat it the same way it is programmed to treat other context free information – the process described above. This is the big difference between shows like “The Daily Show,” which is clearly comedy show (even if some people do not find it to be funny), and “PBS NewsHour,” which is an earnest attempt to document and share a collection of important current events; AKA the news. Seeing a clip of a politician or a CEO of a large multinational corporation on the Daily Show will be handled differently than the same clip appearing on an objective news show. As such, when context is provided, gaslighting by proxy is next to impossible. When it isn’t, the brain will have to work to provide the context to prevent the manipulation, the work being a big disincentive, or avoid doing the work by letting the information in and processing it using the existing heuristics; making one vulnerable to manipulation.
As amazing as the human brain is, it is not full proof or fool proof. It has a finite processing capacity and, as such, it has the innate capability to create general rules to accelerate the decision making process as well as to simplify the handling of massive amounts of input. These rules are good enough to ensure that we do not suffer an easily avoidable death, but they tend to lead to errors as we journey deeper into the realm abstract reality; not because the brain gets it wrong but because the brain does not have the accurate information or adequate information to generate a correct answer quickly.
Context is very important in determining what to do with information and in figuring out what the information is intending to communicate. Context is not a static thing nor is it locked to a particular moment in time. More often than not, the context of the person who is communicating something is different from the context of the person who is listening to and hearing them. What one hears today is about something in the future or the past, meaning that in order for a message to be accurately understood, it must be processed under the same context in which it was intended. This step is cognitively demanding so unless it is attacked with deliberate and conscious effort, it will occur slowly and over time in an unconscious and passive way. This can result in the message taking hours, days, weeks, months or even years to land as intended in the brain of the listener. If you want to get things right as quickly as possible, accept that it is going to take effort and will require that you spend a lot of time considering things that were not said, are not obvious, and that may even seem to be a little paranoid.
Anyone who has a desire to manipulate other people need only learn how the brain processes data and generates information in order to figure out how to bypass the normal vetting mechanisms that have been programmed into our perceptual system. When someone is communicating, you will be much better off in the long run if you take the time to consider WHAT they want you to believe and, more importantly, WHY they want you to believe it and HOW they will benefit if you accept it as true.
Any failure to adequately surface and consider the context from which the communicator is approaching things will leave you open to being manipulated via your own perceptual processes and the innate code that helps us generate rules to simplify the in-flow of massive amounts of data. Gaslighting by proxy is one example of how a subversive actor can go about using a persons own processing abilities to cause the brain to throw an error thus allowing them to exert control over what is stored on their victims brain.