“Don’t listen to what people say; watch what they do.” Stephen D. Levitt, Think Like A Freak
Gaslighting is a term that has received a lot of mileage lately in media. The term originated in the psychological literature in the late 1960s and, while it was used only sporadically in political culture, it really achieved trending status in the mainstream and social media with the 2016 political election. I think it is a term that is widely misunderstood and, as a consequence, is often used inappropriately. So what does gaslighting mean?
The term first achieved popular usage with a 1944 film starring Ingrid Bergman (I just LOVE Ingrid Bergman!) and Charles Boyer. I remember seeing the film when I was around 11 or 12. My dad was an early to bed guy. My mom loved staying up later and watching old movies on television. I have never been a good sleeper and so, in the summertime, my mom would allow me to stay up with her “if I stayed quiet and didn’t bother her.” So, my mom and I watched a lot of old black and white movies on TV. (That may be one of the reasons I love monochrome photographic images to this day!)
And sometimes, while the rest of the household was asleep, my mom would sometimes make a deal with me. Even though she was already in her nightgown, she would drive me—barefoot, ragged blue jean shorts, t-shirt—to the Dairy Queen drive-in 10 minutes from our home, right before closing time. I would jump out of the car and head to the order window. ‘Two Banana Splits!’ And then Mom would drive us back home and we would eat our banana splits while watching a movie from the 40s or the 50s. But I digress, as usual.
The movie I’m referring to, in a very twisted round about manner, is termed appropriately Gaslight. The film has that wonderful noir quality of the old black and white films. In the film, the husband deliberately dims the lights in the home and when his wife questions why the light is changing, he denies that they are. His purpose is to have her doubt her sanity so that he might commit her to a mental institution.
So, the term achieved pop culture usage to refer to the manipulation to deny reality to a person on the receiving end of the gaslighting. So, how does someone deny reality to another? Actually, pretty easily and effectively—by presenting false information to them in order to make them doubt their own memories, judgments or perceptions. The term was quickly borrowed by psychologists as a tool to easily communicate a concept to their patients.
Most often, the manipulation is a conscious and deliberate attempt by one individual over another individual. It is not necessarily intentional or malicious, however. The person doing the gaslighting may be unconsciously avoiding reality themselves and therefore subverting any attempts by others presenting reality. Gaslighting is a cognitive strategy for regulation and co-regulation and it works. It is a way for an individual to control the moment, stop the conflict, ease some anxiety and feel in charge, a way to deflect responsibility. Common phrases used by gaslighters? You’re just imagining things, you’re overreacting, it never happened, you don’t remember things clearly, there you go again. The phrases may differ but the end result is the same—to negate your perspective, insisting that you are wrong or telling you your emotional reaction is dysfunctional.
Some of the more famous examples of gaslighting as a tool for manipulation was the slogan used by Joseph Stalin (and commandeered in the book 1984) of 2 + 2 = 5.
Stalin used it to refer to the escalation of the Russian economy under his leadership. Winston Smith, in 1984, finally concedes under great pressure that yes, 2 + 2 = 5 to illustrate the point that sometimes the benefit of embracing the lie outweighs the sacrifice required to cling to the truth. Since then, the term 2 + 2 = 5 has come to represent the absurdity of political falsehoods and lying propaganda.
Amanda Carpenter refers to the concept in her book, Gaslighting America, when she refers to the falsehood tsunami that America experienced with the Trump White House.
In 2018, Donald Trump gave an outstanding example of the concept of gaslighting—denying the reality that others experienced in order to exert control—when he stated in a public speech that, “What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what is happening.”
Another example of gaslighting in the pop media was Chico Marx in the film, Duck Soup, when he spoke the line, “Who are you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?” That eventually became, in pop culture use, a line used successfully by Richard Pryor in his Live on the Sunset Strip comedy routine when he tells the audience that his wife caught him with his mistress so he asks her, “Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?
So, what is the best recourse if you suspect that you are being gaslit? The caution to watch what they do and not what they say in the epigraph above is by Dr. Levitt, a Harvard and MIT trained economist who achieved popular celebrity as the originator of the Freakonomics movement. In his latest book, Think Like A Freak (which I highly recommend!), Levitt recommends the attitude we need to cultivate in order to best handle the tricks and the problems that the world throws at us. Basically, he argues that we should think like a child, free ourselves from expectations and be prepared for simple explanations. We should watch what they do and not what they say.
Rachel Maddow has also proscribed this course for journalists who were trying to adequately cover the Trump administration and the deluge of conflicting lies, distortions of reality, and contradictions that emanated from the White House. In 2019, she cautioned all journalists to “watch what they do, not what they say.“
Watch what they do, not what they say.