Gaslighting: The origins of the popular psychology term

“Gaslighting” is a common term in psychology today. The term is now celebrating its birthday. In 1944, the legendary “Gaslight” film adaptation starring Ingrid Bergman was released in cinemas. 80 years later, the so-called “gaslighting” seems more relevant than ever.

Manipulating someone with lies so that the victim doubts their own sanity, memories and sensory impressions is called “gaslighting”. The term has become very common in the USA, especially in light of the turbulent activities of Donald Trump. In this country too, it has now become a more well-known phenomenon in interpersonal relationships – alongside words such as ghosting. The psychological term was inspired by the play “Gas Light” by the English author Patrick Hamilton (1904-1962), which has been made into a film several times.

80 years ago – in the summer of 1944 – the most famous film adaptation was released (at least in North America and Great Britain): “Gaslight” with Ingrid Bergman. The German title of this version is “The House of Lady Alquist” (it was released in German cinemas in 1947). The actress Angela Lansbury (“Murder, She Wrote”) made her screen debut in the psychological thriller as the maid Nancy and was nominated for the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.

Ingrid Bergman wins her first Oscar

In the film, the gaslight refers to the mysterious flickering of the gas flame in the ceiling light of the inherited London townhouse. Bergman’s character Paula is frightened by it because she cannot explain it rationally. Bergman, then 29, won her first of three Oscars for the role of Paula Alquist, beating out stars such as Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck at the 1945 Oscars.

In the classic, which is set in Victorian England at the end of the 19th century, Bergman plays a woman whose husband hatches a plan to drive her mad. Far too in love, Paula refuses to accept for a long time that her husband Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer) is a thief and murderer who killed her rich aunt and only wants jewels. Anton convinces Paula that the footsteps she heard in the attic and the dimming of the gas light in the house on Thornton Square are just her imagination.

Gaslighting victims can suffer from serious mental illness

The psychological abuse of so-called gaslighting often occurs – as in the film – within close relationships and over a long period of time. At first, the victim is confused. After a while, however, they begin to doubt their mental state and adopt the gaslighter’s false reality. In extreme cases, the victim no longer trusts their own perception and submits to the abuser’s alleged truth.

The American Psychological Association (APA) stresses that “gaslighting” – the use of the English word for gaslight as a verb – is more of a colloquial term, even if it occasionally appears in clinical literature. Gaslighting is a tactic used by people with antisocial (even narcissistic) personality disorder. Victims of gaslighting can suffer a significant loss of self-esteem and become seriously ill mentally.

Gaslighting also a strategy of populists

A year and a half ago, the American dictionary “Merriam-Webster” named gaslighting the word of the year. It was, it said at the end of 2022, a despicable tool that occurs in relationships, in families, among friends, but also in the media and politics. It can also be a corporate calculation to mislead the public. There is also medical gaslighting, for example when specialists dismiss a patient’s symptoms or illnesses – motto: “It’s all in your head.”

Psychologists also see gaslighting as a strategy used by populists, extreme politicians, autocrats or terrorist organizations. Psychotherapist and bestselling author Bryant Welch noted early on that Donald Trump regularly uses the tactic. It is about creating confusion, for example undermining trust in established media and constantly spreading one’s own worldview, feeding the people and the public a fake version of reality, says Welch (“State of Confusion: Political Manipulation and the Assault on the American Mind”).

Long-time journalism professor Ben Yagoda investigated the history of the word gaslighting in 2017. According to him, several sitcoms in the 1950s alluded to the nasty behavior of Boyer’s character from the 1944 Hollywood film. The transition from television gag to science happened in the 1960s. The verb “to gaslight” was probably first used by the anthropologist Anthony FC Wallace (“Culture and Personality”, 1961).

The word entered everyday language in the 1980s. Yagoda wrote that he first heard it in 1989 when he interviewed 19-year-old Uma Thurman for Rolling Stone. But gaslighting has only been integrated into common usage in the last eight years or so. The impetus came from Trump – who is still relevant in 2024.