The concept of gaslighting was first introduced in the 1938 play “Gas Light” by Patrick Hamilton, which was made into a movie a couple of time. The story is set in 1880 when houses are artificially illuminated with candles for the lower classes and gas for the middle and upper classes. The husband and wife, main characters, live in a big house that is lite with gas. Their relationship is not a good one. The apartment above remains vacant after the murder of a rich lady who had a lot of expensive jewelry. The husband spends the evenings searching an upstairs apartment for the jewels but he doesn’t tell his wife where he is going or what he is doing. Of course, he uses the gas lights when he searches the upstairs apartment, which causes the lights in the rest of the building to glow more dimly. His wife hears sounds coming from the apartment and notices the lights getting dimmer but when she asks her husband about these things he tells her that they are not happening. He does it so frequently and so convincingly that she begins to doubt her own experience of reality and starts to question her sanity.
This is the origin of the term “gaslighting” and it is a powerful way to manipulate other people. It is a long game and it tends to work more effectively on people who have a connection to or a reason to care for manipulator. The effects are cumulative and will only occur after repeated exposure. In general, it works because someone lies so convincingly and so consistently about a subject that the victim begins to doubt their own experiences. It will not work when the person knows that they are being lied to, either because they have proof of the lies or they have other social proof that their experience of reality is actually true, and it cannot be said that a person who is motivated to believe the other persons lies is suffering from gaslighting.
Recall or consider the Asch conformity experiment that asked subjects to answer a question about line length. Subjects were placed into groups with other people who were, unbeknownst to them, confederates and working with the experimenter. The group was shown two pictures, one with a single line drawn on it and one with three lines drawn on it. They were then asked to select with line in the second picture matched the length of the line in the first picture. When the subject answered first or when the previous answers did not agree, they would always answer correctly. But when they answered last and there had been complete agreement on a particular line, they were more likely to offer-up the same answer. This is not a case of gaslighting even though most of the subjects did, at least some of the time, go along with the answers the rest of the group gave. These subject consciously made the decision to conform and give the same answer as the rest of the group members. At no time did they question their belief that the group was answering incorrectly. They simply made the decision to go along with the group to avoid the negative feelings associated with standing alone. This is a critical distinction because it illustrates the importance of the relationship between the perpetrator and the victim. In Asch’s study, the subject doubted the sanity of the other group members, with gaslighting, the victim doubts their own sanity.
The play came out in 1938 and for a few decades nothing much came of it other than it being a moderately interesting evening of entertainment and a decent thought experiment in terms of “what would you do” in a similar situation. However, during the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s, the term began to build-up steam and started to take root in mainstream consciousness to refer to any deliberate actions that were taken to undermine someone’s perception of reality. It is now widely accepted as a manipulation tactic used by narcissists, sociopaths, and people who wish to destabilize another person’s view of what is real.
The timing of this is not much of a surprise either. We are now living in what many consider the post truth era. This is a time in which the truth is much less important than being right or being believed. It happens to coincide with the elimination of tight social groups and the formation of virtual social groups that coexist around a shared interest in a particular subject or way of viewing the world. This creates a powerful selection bias effect that convinces each member of the group to believe that their point of view is much more common and much more significant than it actually is. Consider the current political climate. While it may seem like the world is very polarized, it is about as polarized as it has ever been. The distribution of political leanings maps perfectly onto the normal distribution curve that is highest in the center and drops off on either side. Most people are moderates and are very tolerant of the other moderates. They just go about living their life and accept that other people will have views that are different from them. Those who do not agree are not wrong, they are just people who have a different perspective. If we assume that the middle is made-up of the one standard deviation above and below the mean, we need to accept that this will amount to 68 percent of the population. If we assume that it is made-up of two standard deviations above and below the mean, we need to accept that this will amount to 95 percent of the population. Either way you look at it, the middle is MASSIVE while the fringes are tiny.
However, our large population and the Internet has given us the ability to seek out, find, and connect with like-minded people about any subject, regardless of geographic location. The ability to broadcast anything in real time has given the small numbers of fringe members the ability to echo and amplify their message creating the illusion that there are more of them than there are. Compounding this illusion is the relative ease at which people can disregard information that does not support their point of view. There is an innate tendency for people to seek out information that validates their beliefs and to resist information that does not confirm what they believe to be true, and when given access to all of the information of the world via the Internet, there is no reason for someone who is motivated to believe something to ever to be exposed to anything that contradicts it.
The truth does not matter when it can be ignored.
This was not the case until very recently. When the population was low and the ability to find and connect with people who shared your particular perspective was severely limited, we had no choice but to listen and coexist with those who were near us in a geographical sense. Our views were balanced and tempered by the exposure to other people who held a slightly different perspective of the same subject. We needed to get along with them because they lived close to us, so we learned how to tolerate other points of view and likely learned things from the people who differed from us giving us a better understanding of facts, evidence, and the truth. Gaslighting was rare when we were exposed to a variety of people who had a diverse collection of perspectives.
Gaslighting has really taken off over the last 10 years because the ability to self-select the information we consume and the groups to which we identify as being a part of. And it is a real problem.
In fairness, I don’t really care what adults do so long as it doesn’t impact the freedom, safety, and liberty of other people. My view is that the human brain is an amazing thing that has a massive storage potential in terms of memory and it is innately coded to assimilate sensory information in a way that allows it to create mental processes to perform powerful and arbitrary tasks. The world would be a much better place to live if everyone used their brain to its potential by bringing in the most accurate information available and then allowing it to write the code to handle the process of living more effectively, but this isn’t what people are going to choose to do. If you’re over the age of 25, there is still hope for you because the brain maintains its powerful abilities for the duration of life, but you are your own problem now. You are an adult and you have every right to choose the life you are going to live.
It is a problem for the people who are not adults because they are in the process of learning how to be adults and they have always existed in the post truth world that favors virtual interactions with little social cost over the face to face interactions that reveal other human beings to be a slightly different version of the same thing they are.
Gaslighting in this context is much easier to accomplish and a lot more damaging in terms of long term consequences. Younger people do not have the life experience that contributes to knowing much about anything. Most of their time has been spent getting up to speed with the skills most of us take for granted – the 80% of the skills that all human beings have in common. Moving, talking, learning how to read language, learning how to interact with the physical objects in the world, etc. consume much of learning opportunities in the early parts of life. Young people are also much more open and just accept what they hear as being the truth because they don’t have a choice. Their lack experience with almost everything means that in order to learn anything they have to assume that what they experience is the truth and are at the mercy of the intention of the people they encounter.
In a way, this is worse than conscious gaslighting. With gaslighting the person knows the truth and is being manipulated into thinking that maybe their view of reality is suspect. It’s not a great situation because being taught to doubt your experiences of reality can create a habit or behavioral pattern of doubt. However, the cause of the problem is the misplaced trust in someone who is willing to weaponize this trust as a way to take something that they want. With young people, there may not be any knowledge or notion of the truth. Their first experience with the truth will be the implantation of a lie that serves only to manipulate them and to give-up whatever the liar wants from them.
Consider what gaining knowledge about a complex subject is like. Imagine the totality of what is known about something would fill-up a fifty page notebook – both sides, single spaced, in the times new roman font at a size of 11, with one inch margins top, bottom and sides. This is about 70000 words assuming 1400 words per page – 700 on the front and 700 on the back – and is a considerable amount of information and it will take a number of years to learn.
Now think about what happens to the person on their first day when they are exposed to the subject. There is a moment when they go from not having the notebook, meaning they do not know that there is a subject, to them getting the notebook. This moment is important because it serves as the introduction to both the fundamentals of the subject and the fact that the subject is a thing that can be known that they do not know much about. They are very vulnerable at this point because all they have is an almost completely blank notebook with very little typed-out. It might have a title and a few sentences, but most of it is empty and there are no page numbers. There is no way for them to know how long the book is because they know almost nothing about the subject other than the title. At this moment in time, and for a few pages at least, they have no choice but to type-out EVERYTHING they hear about the subject and commit it to memory because unless they start filling-up the note book, they are never going to know anything about it.
This empty notebook phenomenon isn’t isolated to young people, although it is much more prevalent with them. We can be exposed to a completely new subject at any time in our life and when it happens, we are just as vulnerable as the young person is to disinformation, lies, or biased / unbalanced information. There will be an almost complete transcription, word for word, of everything that is said for a few pages and this information will make-up the foundation of the persons understanding about the subject. Ideally, the authors of these foundational sentences will be honest brokers of the truth and will make it clear that what they are sharing is only a tiny portion of the totality of the subject. This was much more likely in the past, when the teacher was someone from the immediate community and the information was shared or taught via a face to face interaction. There was also a long term relationship or connection between the student and the teacher meaning that the teacher would likely play a long lasting role in the process of education about the subject and if so, they would be around to see the positive outcomes or the consequences of what they taught. When dealing with smaller social groups, there is a cost to lying or setting out to manipulate and that cost is paid by both parties creating a disincentive for the teacher to act selfishly.
We now live in a world that looks nothing like that. Balance doesn’t matter because of the size of the population. Interactions are transactional and manipulation frequently goes unnoticed and even when it is, it is very often unpunished. People can get away with saying whatever they like, with little disincentive for deviating away from the truth and the potential for big reward by presenting biased, incomplete, or wrong information as fact. The inevitable outcome to this is an abundance of people who have the first 20 pages of their notebooks filled with garbage, propaganda, or conditional facts, that serve only to benefit the person who exposed them to the stuff in the first place. This leads the owners of the books to be certain about things that are wrong, and to contribute to the potential gaslighting of the people who are close to them. This isn’t exactly their fault, they have never been exposed to both sides of the story and since they do not know enough about the subject to know how long the book is, they have no basis for believing that there is a lot of stuff that they don’t know and have yet to learn or that what they have been taught was bullshit and existed only to control them in some way.
It gets a couple of steps worse though. As much as I have contempt for people who manipulate others just so they can get what they want, I can at least understand their motives. It’s sneaky and awful, but their intentions leave clues and are very simple to figure-out once you start to consider the possibility that they are not acting selflessly. The moment you begin to follow the money or the payout, their reasons for doing what they do are obvious. These folks are bad, but they are predictably bad and bad in very specific ways. The people who cause me the most consternation are the ones who are gaslighting but for no reason obvious reason. These are the ones who could and should be acting differently but are just not taking the time to be careful or educated enough to actually be helpful to other people.
If it isn’t clear the type of person or things I am making reference to here, consider what gets posted to most twitter accounts that is of a derogatory nature. Almost everything that anyone does makes logical sense to them, although it may not be based on reality. If someone doesn’t have the right information, there’s a much better than random chance that they will get something wrong. But having the power to broadcast is much simpler than the world is, leading everyone to have an almost equal voice. Most of what people say is going to be wrong under certain contexts and anyone who understands the subject only under those contexts has the power to point out just how stupid the person is for making their statement. The truth is that both people are correct, except person A doesn’t have the same content in the first 10 pages of their notebook that person B has, and neither one knows how long their notebooks are. All they know is that what they know is all there is to know so anyone who disagrees with them is insane.
There is no possibility for balanced perspective or for learning. The only thing that comes of it is an argument or fight between two people who know only enough to be dangerously ignorant and absolutely certain that their point of view is infallible. The only thing that stops it from being gaslighting is the complete lack of respect or connection between the two people who are trying to convince the other that they are wrong.
The collateral damage is anyone who happens to respect and trust one of the participants who doesn’t share their point of view. These people end-up getting steered away from their perspective as they become convinced that it is incorrect REGARDLESS of how they came to hold the point of view. Without realizing that they are being impacted by someone who has very little understanding of the subject, they flip the switch on what they know is fact and turn it into fiction. They have learned a new piece of disinformation and the wedge of doubt has been hammered into their level of certainty that the person who taught them the thing in the first place was correct or that they should be trusted in the future. This has potential long term negative effects in that it can whittle down the number of people that the young person considers sources of truth.
Again, when this concerns adults, I don’t care all that much. Everything I am saying here is well documented and available to anyone who cares enough to seek it out. For adults in western society there is no longer such a thing as ignorance, there is only willful ignorance (a legal term) or ignorance through laziness (a narrative colloquialism). They have the opportunity to acquire whatever information they need to make an informed and well educated decision, so any failure to do so is purely the result of an unwillingness to put in the effort.
Willful ignorance in contemporary law, and its historical counterpart willful blindness, refer to the action of deliberately not learning the facts in an effort to avoid future accountability or prosecution. For example, someone agreeing to drive a car across the border only to claim that they didn’t know that there was contraband in the trunk. While it may very well be true that they didn’t know that there was anything illegal in there, they are still responsible for crossing the border with it because it is reasonable to expect that someone should know what is in the car they are driving OR that they should have been suspicious about the request. Willful ignorance is also one of the main reasons why there are so many signs at airports telling you to NOT check any luggage that you did not pack yourself.
Not knowing something, when you reasonably should have known or when you actively avoided finding out, opens you up to criminal prosecution. It is very serious and on the same level as having taken the actions with full knowledge – the willfully ignorant is as guilty as the person who planted the drugs, the main difference is that the person who planted the drugs isn’t sitting in the police station or border security holding cell. The only possible defense to willful ignorance is plausible deniability which holds that the person was far enough removed from the information that it is not reasonable to believe that they would have actively had to take steps to avoid knowing it. Consider a long haul truck driver who has picked-up a sealed load at a distribution center that turns out to have drugs hidden in the cases of coconut milk. It is not reasonable to expect them to check the entire load, particularly when it has been pre-cleared and has a customs seal.
This concerns gaslighting because gaslighting is intended to make the victim doubt the validity of what they know to be true or to doubt what they believe about reality. While lying will be a component to it in most cases, the perpetrator does not necessarily need to lie or to even know what the truth is. All that is required is the intention to cause doubt or psychological uncertainty and to take actions to create this outcome. This is important because honesty and truth telling are the antidote to gaslighting. The truth is the objective definition or description of reality, therefore anytime someone tells the truth, they are making factual claims about what is real. Someone who consistently tells the truth can be counted on when doing an ecology check to vet the quality and accuracy of another’s assumptions or claims. Truth teller will shamelessly state that they do not know when they do not know. In fact, their locus of control is completely internal meaning that they care a lot less about being believed than they do about telling the truth OR NEVER telling a lie.
This is the essence of my beef with the post truth era and with people in western society who say things that are not true. It isn’t that they are making their own lives more difficult, they are adults and are responsible for making their own decisions, and I don’t care all that much about their experience of life. It is that they are making other people’s lives more difficult. They are, by my thinking, willfully ignorant and therefore a step above complicit in allowing the truth to fall by the wayside; particularly given the ease at which the truth can be uncovered via the Internet.
This begs the question, are they gaslighting? Well, consider the fact that telling the truth is the antidote and the only way to immunize others from it, anyone who is lying might be gaslighting. It then comes down to their intention when they talk – are they saying what they are saying to cause the listener to doubt their view of reality? The answer here is less straight forward, but in a world were learning the truth is a matter of putting in a little bit of effort and were avoiding the telling of a lie is simply a matter of saying “I don’t know,” we’d be foolish to extend any charity towards someone who is willfully ignorant and vocal. They are choosing to lie when saying nothing, admitting that they do not know, or when finding out the correct answer are available options.
It comes down to why someone would do this, and this is why I consider it to be gaslighting. They want other people to believe that they know what they are talking about and that they know the truth. Neither of these things is true, therefore they are trying to convince the listener to believe that reality is different from how it actually is. When they could simply announce that they do not know or that they are putting forward a guess or an opinion, or when they could hold off on saying anything until they know the answer, they are making the decision to speak in an attempt to manipulate the person they are talking to.
It is dangerous because it might work. The listener may view them as an expert and a source of truth. They may start to disbelieve something that is true. They may even stop listening to someone who is an honest broker of the truth simply because the other person doesn’t soften any of their statements with words like “opinion” or “I think.” And any of these things make the future of the listener much more difficult because they have promoted a gaslighting liar into their circle of influence and demoted a mentor or truth teller out of this circle. The only possible outcome here is a degradation in the quality of their view of reality.
Again, NONE of this is necessary. All of the answers are available to anyone who is willing to put in the effort to find them. Yet it is happening more now than ever before which is making a lot of things worse for young people and the adults who are afflicted with this pathological and chronic willful ignorance.
The Internet is both the cause of and the solution to the pandemic of gaslighting. The truth is out there, readily available to anyone who is willing to take the time to find it. But there is less of an incentive to put in the work to learn how to get along with people we do not agree with, now that we can self-select our social groups and the information that we consume. We are beginning to see the negative outcome of this now that people who are less tolerant to having their ideas challenged and are less willing to value different opinions have a platform for vocalizing their disdain and irrational phobia of the people who hold incompatible perspectives.
My view is that gaslighting is an indication of a lack of self-respect and it amounts to vice-signalling. Laziness is a vice, so anyone who is willing to avoid putting in the effort that is required to find answers in favor of saying whatever they feel like is making a strong clear statement about how much they value their brain and their wisdom – not enough to do an Internet search and manage their way through whatever discomfort new information triggers inside of them.