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Mental Model: Gaslighting


Gaslighting is a psychological manipulation and cognition adjustment technique, often used by militaries and governments, as well as emotionally abusive men and women, in which the perpetrator attempts to alter the reality of the victim by causing them to question their memories or frame of reference for an event.

One of the big themes that I perpetually hit upon is that you, as a rational, responsible adult, should not outsource your thinking.

When it comes to what matters in life, you must rely on your own judgment and analysis of the facts.  In the words of Benjamin Graham, “You are neither right nor wrong because the crowd disagrees with you.  You are right because your data and reasoning are right.”  After all, if you can’t make your own decisions, how can you focus on your own happiness?

It takes a particular temperament and strength to be able to maintain that you are correct based on an impartial study of the facts when the overwhelming power of social proof works against you.  In practical terms, if I teach you anything, it is that you shouldn’t accept something as lex terre, whether it is stated by me or some other authority figure in your life.  You must think for yourself.  You must arrive at your own conclusions.  That doesn’t mean you can’t look for input from others, which is advisable, only that you must reserve final judgement for yourself.

For those who aren’t naturally imbued with this trait, there is a form of psychological strategy against which you should learn to protect yourself.  It is called gaslighting.

What Is Gaslighting?

The term gaslighting is derived from a 1938 play called Gas Light written by Patrick Hamilton.  Gas light was one of the longest running non-musicals on Broadway, staged under the name Angel Street for American audiences.  The plot involved a husband who, in an attempt to convince his wife she is going insane, insists that she is imagining things that are really happening, such as the gas lights in the house dimming.

[mainbodyad]In its basic form, gaslighting involves modifying evidence and falsifying information for the purpose of making the intended victim question his or her recollection, memory, analysis, and perception of events or behaviors.  Gaslighting is commonly used by the military and other high-level organizations for socio-political operations.  It is sometimes used by the mental health profession as a concept to describe a particular form of psychological manipulation in inter-personal relationships.

Sometimes, gaslighting can be as simple as knowingly denying something took place.  This is a common behavior exhibited by perpetrators of child abuse, who will sometimes deny completely that abuse happened, intending to make the victim doubt his or her own recollection.

Other times, gaslighting can involve the creation of elaborate schemes, experiences, and situations that cause a person to question their own judgment and recollection.  There are a good number of con games based upon the concept of gaslighting, almost all of which are designed to steal money from the victim.

A brilliant example of gaslighting is the Michael Douglas movie The Game.  It is one great series of gaslighting from beginning to end.

What Gaslighting Is Not: The Term Gaslighting Is Often Misapplied to Situations That Are Best Covered By Another Mental Model

I’m of the opinion that some in the mental health field have co-opted the mental model of gaslighting and expanded it to the point that it is no longer useful, essentially turning it into a meaningless phrase like we’ve done with “terrorist” and “war”.

As thinkers, our job is to understand the who, what, where, when, and why.  Restricting the definition of gaslighting to its origins is useful in this quest.  As such, going back to its core, gaslighting should require intent; what the law would call mens rea.  If someone is in denial and trying to protect themselves subconsciously, denying an event is not gaslighting.  We should call it denial.  If someone misremembers something, that is not gaslighting.  It is misremembering.  Both scenarios do not involve the willful desire to manipulate others, so labeling it as gaslighting does nothing to improve cognition and learn to avoid it.

I had hoped to link to good resources on gaslighting so you could research it more but it seems it is an under-covered mental model.  Unfortunately, one of the only books on the topic, The Gas Light Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life by Robin Stern, suffers from what I consider a handful of seriously misguided notions that are damaging in and of themselves.  In fact, I think the book could do more harm than good for someone looking build up their understanding of mental models.

The short version: Stern’s book should have been called “Emotional Invalidation: How to Spot and Survive People Who Don’t Value Your Feelings”.  Though there is some overlap, I don’t believe she has a firm grasp on the spirit of gaslighting and instead expands too far.  To see what I mean, look at the list of “15 signs” that you are being gaslighted put forth by Stern:

  1. You constantly second-guess yourself.
  2. You wonder, “Am I being too sensitive?” a dozen times a day.
  3. You wonder frequently if you are a “good enough” girlfriend/wife/employee/friend/daughter.
  4. You have trouble making simple decisions.
  5. You think twice before bringing up innocent topics of conversation.
  6. You frequently make excuses for your partner’s behavior to friends and family.
  7. Before your partner comes home from work, you run through a checklist in your head to anticipate anything you might have done wrong that day.
  8. You buy clothes for yourself, furnishings for your apartment, or other personal purchases thinking about what your partner would like instead of what would make you feel great.
  9. You actually start to enjoy the constant criticism, because you think, “What doesn’t kill me will make me stronger.”
  10. You start speaking to your husband through his secretary so you don’t have to tell him things you’re afraid might upset him.
  11. You start lying to avoid the put-downs and reality twists.
  12. You feel as though you can’t do anything right.
  13. You frequently wonder if you’re good enough for your lover.
  14. Your kids start trying to protect you from being humiliated by your partner.
  15. You feel hopeless and joyless.

First, let’s ignore the subconscious misandry in her writing (it would seem in Stern’s world, all perpetrators are men and all victims are women).  It is far more probable that in most cases, people suffering from the checklist she presents might have significant self-esteem issues or are clinically depressed.  Feeling hopeless and joyless, wondering if you are good enough for your spouse, having trouble making decisions?  Occam’s razor applies: The simplest explanation is the most likely.  If those are your warning signs, you should see a doctor and have your brain chemistry checked before jumping to the conclusion that you are being gaslighted.

Many of the other behaviors are not symptoms of gaslighting but rather of emotional invalidation by an abusive spouse.  They are not synonymous.

Stern essentially equates gaslighting with any behavior in others that makes you feel bad about yourself or that you don’t like.  It’s what Charlie Munger calls the “man with a hammer” tendency (“to a man with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail”).  She fails the common sense test in that she seems oblivious to the reality that:

  • Sometimes, people are jackasses.
  • Sometimes, people are insensitive.
  • Sometimes, people don’t care about you as much as you care about them because you’ve misjudged your relationship.
  • Sometimes, you really are too emotional or unprepared (e.g., a former classmate of mine used to run out of the room in tears, sobbing, when the professor would call on her during a lab because she couldn’t handle the pressure of failing in front of a group; the professor would just stand there, befuddled, until he finally stopped calling on her at all).
  • Sometimes, you are giving off awkward social signals that make others uncomfortable so their behavior is a defense mechanism to keep you at a distance.
  • Sometimes, people are in denial about something and have convinced themselves of its truth.
  • Sometimes, heavy dogma such as religious indoctrination, sets parameters for behavior within sub-groups and the folks involved truly believe what they are saying.

None of these things indicate gaslighting unless they are consciously and willfully attempting to manipulate your reality to gain your compliance and exercise control over you.  In all other cases, there are other mental models that better label and define behavior.  Again, as thinkers, we are interested in motive just as much as outcome.

In other words:

  • Stern says gaslighting would be: “Your husband crosses the line in his flirtations with another woman at a dinner party. When you confront him, he asks you to stop being insecure and controlling. After a long argument, you apologize for giving him a hard time.”
  • I say gaslighting would be: “Your husband pays a male escort to call your phone and leave an explicit message in your voice mail, using your name and details that only an intimate partner would know.  Then, he ‘discovers’ it and slowly convinces everyone of your friends and family you are an adulterer to emotionally manipulate and dominate you.”

In Stern’s example, it is entirely possible the man really thinks he is doing nothing wrong (even if he is) or, alternatively, the woman really is paranoid, self-conscious, and jealous.  Depending on the circumstances, the man’s behavior probably isn’t gaslighting.  In the second example, there is a clear, deliberate manipulation of the world to create a false reality that is then used to control the victim.  That is gaslighting.

How to Protect Yourself from Gaslighting

The biggest key to protecting yourself from gaslighting goes back to a central theme of this blog: Trust your own judgment.  To do that, you need independent and verifiable evidence of what happens in your life that is not subject to tampering or even your own biases.

  • Never let anyone stand between you and the source data, no matter how much you love them or trust them.
  • Maintain independent sources of data that are secret and available only to you
  • Set out to prove your hypothesis that you are the subject of gaslighting
  • If you are being gaslighted, figure out the perpetrator’s primary motivations and then ask yourself, “Cui bono?”

For example, if someone were being gaslighted as in the play for which the mental model gets its name, they could secretly purchase a lux meter and monitor the light intensity in a room to independently verify if their cognition was accurate.  Either the light is getting dimmer or it isn’t.  It is simple enough to prove.  Likewise, if a spouse is cheating on you, they either are or they aren’t.  Again, it is simple enough to prove.

One final note: Gaslighting is often most successful when it is combined with another mental model, the Contrast Principle.  By keeping changes just below the threshold of perceptibility, it is possible to slowly “creep” into compliance with a victim in the form of encroachment.  Notice that the original gaslighter didn’t turn the lights down all at once.  He slowly, steadily, decreased their power so that his behavior could be denied.