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The term "gaslighting" has gained popularity in recent years, but what exactly does it entail?

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[INTRO ♪].

It's no big deal. Don't be so sensitive.

I didn't say that. This is all in your head. Has anyone ever said these things to you, and, like, made you second-guess yourself?

Or maybe your friend has heard this kind of stuff from their partner, or even their boss. Maybe you have said this kind of thing to somebody else. In any case, these are potential signs of gaslighting.

Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse. It's when one person manipulates another into questioning their sanity and their sense of reality. You might have seen the term online lately, and it was voted the American Dialect Society's Most Useful Word of 2016.

But “to gaslight” has been used as a verb since at least the 1960s, when an anthropologist defined it in a book on culture and personality. The word itself refers to a popular 1944 film and the 1938 stage play it was based on called Gaslight. It feels like it should probably be fair game to spoil a movie from the 1940s, but just in case, spoiler alert!

A guy who says his name is Gregory is trying to find and steal his wife Paula's heirloom jewels. So he tries to drive her insane so that she'll be institutionalized and out of his way. He hides objects, flirts with the maid, and accidentally flickers the gas-powered lights in the house as he's looking for jewels in the attic.

But when she asks him what's going on, he tells her it's all in her head. He even goes as far as accusing her of stealing the lost objects herself. Paula really does begin to doubt her own sanity, and is only saved when a police officer visits while Gregory is in the attic and tells her that he also sees the flickering gaslights—so she's not just imagining things.

And even though this is an extreme example, it's pretty much what gaslighting looks like. In a paper from 1988, two clinical psychologists described cases of gaslighting that they had seen in their practices. In these cases, men cheated on their wives and then denied it, even in the face of solid evidence.

We've heard this song before. It wasn't me! In one example, a wife picked up the phone in her house and heard her husband planning a rendezvous with his girlfriend, and he told her she had just imagined everything.

But it's not just a marital phenomenon, and women aren't always the victims. A supervisor can deny that an employee is being left out of meetings. A friend can convince you that you misheard those hurtful things they said.

A lawyer can try to tell Taylor Swift that she wasn't actually groped. But the trouble with gaslighting is that there's just not a lot of peer-reviewed research on it. It's not the kind of thing you can ethically run an experiment on.

Still, it's something that a lot of clinicians have seen in their clients. And there are plenty of case studies, blog posts, articles, and books published by clinical psychologists that talk about what it looks like, why it happens, and what can be done to stop it. So experts have a few ideas about what's going on in the mind of a gaslighter.

A 1981 review in the journal The Psychoanalytic Quarterly suggested that gaslighting might be a way people project conflicts or emotions like anxiety onto another person. This could explain why cheaters often accuse their spouses of cheating— to make what they did seem less bad, by believing that their partner has felt or behaved the same way. But it doesn't paint a full picture of what's happening with the victims.

A more recent hypothesis is that gaslighting is about power and control, like other forms of abuse. A 1994 study published in Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy suggests that a gaslighter is trying to regulate their own emotions by controlling interactions with other people, and other clinicians and academics agree. By undermining their victim's ability to make sense of what's really going on, a gaslighter can gain control over the relationship and resist any challenges to their worldview, which might make them feel uncomfortable.

Still, that's not to say that people always recognize when they're gaslighting or why it's a problem. A gaslighter might question somebody else's memory or forcefully express their opinions until the other person just concedes. And, to be fair, most of us have probably done something like that in a heated argument.

But the real problem is when these behaviors become a pattern, because that's when they become psychologically harmful. Over time, gaslighting can cause a victim to lose confidence, become clinically depressed, or feel unsure of what is real and what is not. But the truth is, we still don't fully understand why gaslighting happens or why it gets as psychologically damaging as it does.

And as we're learning more, other researchers like sociologists are exploring how gaslighting might influence phenomena in their fields, like the historical marginalization of certain groups of people. So, even though we don't know a whole lot about it yet, is there anything we can do? There's definitely no easy fix.

And since gaslighters and their victims often have personal relationships, walking away doesn't always feel like an option. But some general advice from clinical psychologists to victims of gaslighting is to find someone to double-check reality, whether it's a trusted friend or a therapist. This can help victims work to stop this kind of abuse, and it's something all of us can help with.

Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow Psych. If you would like to watch other episodes about complicated topics in psychology, we have them! You can go to and subscribe. [OUTRO ♪].