The term "gaslighting" (referring to abusive manipulation of the facts to confuse victims) is common in pop-psychology sources, and I have friends who report that their psychologists or psychiatrists use the term as some form of shorthand.

However, I have looked in a couple of online psychology dictionaries, and they don't define the term.

I have looked on this site, and it only appears once.

I have looked on Google Scholar. While I can find some references to the term - especially a "seminal" 1981 paper, Some clinical consequences of introjection: gaslighting, there don't appear to be many papers referencing it, and I haven't the experience to evaluate whether they are fringe ideas or mainstream science.

Is gaslighting just pop psychology, or is the concept of gaslighting widely accepted in the cognitive sciences?


3 Answers 3


The wikipedia article you linked to regarding the term Gaslighting has references to clinical and research literature.

Dorpat, (1996) talks about the incidences of Gaslighting conducted by therapists.

In treatment, the psychotherapist is in a position of power. Often, this power is unintentionally abused. While trying to embody a compassionate concern for patients, therapists use accepted techniques that can inadvertently lead to control, indoctrination, and therapeutic failure. Contrary to the stated tradition and values of psychotherapy, they subtly coerce patients rather than respect and genuinely help them. The more gross kinds of patient abuse, deliberate ones such as sexual and financial exploitation, are expressly forbidden by professional organizations. However, there are no regulations discouraging the more covert forms of manipulation, which are not even considered exploitative by many clinicians.

Jacobson & Gottman, (1998) talks about wife batterers.

After their decade of research with more than 200 couples, the authors conclude that not all batterers are alike, nor is the progression of their violence always predictable. But they have found that batterers tend to fall into one of two categories, which they call "Pit Bulls" and "Cobras". Pit Bulls, men whose emotions quickly boil over, are driven by deep insecurity and an unhealthy dependence on the mates whom they abuse. Pit Bulls also tend to become stalkers, unable to let go of relationships that have ended.

Cobras, on the other hand, are cool and methodical as they inflict pain and humiliation on their spouses or lovers (Source: Google Books synopsis)

In the book, it says

A tactic of emotional abuse that is common among Pit Bulls, but not Cobras, is the phenomenon known as "gaslighting." (The term comes from the film Gaslight, in which Charles Boyer convinces Ingrid Bergman that she is going insane.) We gave an example of this phenomenon with Dave and Judy, in which he blatantly denied that he was a batterer. Gaslighting is a systematic attach on the wife's perception of reality.

The term has been used in articles I have read within the last few months including one by Christine Louis de Canonville (2017) who has a B.A. (Hons.) degree in Psychology, and Sarkis (2017) within PsychologyToday.

If you search Google Scholar, the site will return thousands of results including articles in therapy journals, so the concept of gaslighting is widely accepted in the cognitive sciences.


Dorpat, T. L. (1996). Gaslighting, the Double Whammy, Interrogation, and Other Methods of Covert Control in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis. New York:Jason Aronson
ISBN-10: 1-5682-1828-1
ISBN-13: 978-1-5682-1828-1

Jacobson, N. S. & Gottman, J. M. (1998). When Men Batter Women: New Insights into Ending Abusive Relationships. New York:Simon and Schuster
ISBN-10: 1-4165-5133-6
ISBN-13: 978-1-4165-5133-1

Louis de Canonville, C. (2017). The Effects of Gaslighting on Victims of Narcissistic Abuse [Online]
Available at: http://narcissisticbehavior.net/the-effects-of-gaslighting-in-narcissistic-victim-syndrome/

Sarkis, S. (2017) Are Gaslighters Aware of What They Do? [Online]
Available at:https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/here-there-and-everywhere/201701/are-gaslighters-aware-what-they-do

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    $\begingroup$ Thank you, Chris. I have given you a +1 for your efforts in researching. However, if anything, your evidence has pushed me away from your conclusion. If "gaslighting" was pop-psychology pseudoscience, I would only expect to be able to find it in unreferenced articles by grads, non-peer-reviewed blogs on magazine sites, self-help books that divide people into Pit Bulls versus Cobras, and books with few citations. You don't provide any respected text books/reference books or highly cited articles from serious journals. $\endgroup$ Jul 31, 2017 at 16:37
  • $\begingroup$ @Oddthinking - How about the articles in therapy journals (which are serious journals) which come up in the Google Scholar search? $\endgroup$ Jul 31, 2017 at 16:43
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    $\begingroup$ That's where I hold the greatest hope. When I search for "gaslighting abuse" (to get rid of references to gas-fueled lamps) I get (only) about 1,600 results. I can see a lot of those aren't peer-reviewed journals, some seem to refer to gas-lighting only in passing, but the few that are about gas-lighting, I have only limited skill in knowing which journals are serious, and which are predatory/vanity/pseudo-science. $\endgroup$ Jul 31, 2017 at 16:55
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    $\begingroup$ 2 examples are Gass, G. Z., & Nichols, W. C. (1988). Gaslighting: A marital syndrome. Contemporary Family Therapy, 10(1), 3-16. Calef V , Weinshel EM (1981). Some clinical consequences of introjection: gaslighting. The Psychoanalytic Quarterly , 50(1), 44-66 If you don't consider them scientific, have a look at cogsci.stackexchange.com/a/12113 $\endgroup$ Jul 31, 2017 at 17:38
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    $\begingroup$ Each of those have dozens of citations each, and appear to be in serious journals [again, I don't rate myself as a judge of this in this field], so yes, I think they are much better examples. Thank you. (I skimmed the text of the first, and wasn't impressed that it was based on evidence, but that's a totally separate question, and again I acknowledge my lack of expertise to be a a good judge.) $\endgroup$ Jul 31, 2017 at 18:01

I would not call it a mainstream concept but it was discussed in some mainstream sources. However, there's a divergence in meaning; some old Commonwealth medical/psychiatry papers mostly use it to denote having someone inappropriately committed to a mental institution... whereas the broader notion you ask about is found in more recent sources and of more marginal impact factor. Furthermore, the original British concept has been re-labeled "tertiary gain of illness" in the US.

First of all, the 1981 "seminal" paper (by Calef and Weinshel) you mention is in psychoanalytical journal, which would immediately give me pause as to its validity/acceptance (unless you're in France). However the Wikipedia page cites an older paper by Lund & Gardiner, 1977, which is just a case report though, but in a mainstream psychiatry journal, the British Journal of Psychiatry. Abstract:

A case of paranoid psychosis in an elderly female is reported in which recurrent episodes were apparently induced by the staff of the institution where the patient was a resident. The issues raised by this case are discussed.

The actually seminal paper (cited in the previous one) is Barton & Whitehead (1969) "The gas-light phenomenon". Lancet,i,1258-60. but this was also case report (two actually). The Lancet, as you probably know, is a mainstream medical journal (not just psychiatric).

Another paper in the Br. J. Psych is Smith and Sinanan, 1972, The `Gaslight Phenomenon' Reappears A Modification of the Ganser Syndrome, https://doi.org/10.1192/bjp.120.559.685 starts with:

In 1969 Barton and Whitehead reported two cases in which there were definite plots to remove an unwanted and restricting relative by securing admission to a mental hospital, and one case of an old lady admitted to a mental hospital following induced faecal incontinence. The old lady was considered a nursing home nuisance and she was given purgatives regularly. Inevitably she had some "accidents" and these were used as an excuse for removing her to hospital. They labelled such attempts 'The Gaslight Phenomenon', inspired by Patrick Hamilton's play Gaslight which was first produced in London in 1939 and later formed the basis for a film. Their survey of the literature uncovered few recent reports of such manipulations. Without the emphasis of Barton and White head's report the following cases might have passed unnoticed. We feel that it is time to stress again the presence of this phenomenon, and, as this report shows, it is not unique to psychiatric hospitals.

And they also discuss a couple of cases.

But nevertheless these paper have few citations, using the Google Scholar count 30 for the 1969 one. So while it was discussed, it was seldom so. It's true that the 1981 paper seems to have more citations (57) but in my experience GS undercounts for the older papers and overcounts the newer ones.

Searching for the "gaslight" term in pubmed returns around 10 papers (a couple of which are clearly false positive) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=gaslight and https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=gaslighting only 3 hits. Hence my conclusion: discussed in mainstream sources, but seldom, so not a mainstream term.

Also note that the sources from the Commonwealth (there is a paper from Canada as well https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7093877) use gaslight phenomenon/syndrome, while all 3 hits in pubmed for "gaslighting" are from US authors (and 2 surely are psychoanalytical, including the paper you found.) I find it a little odd that there no hits in any US psychiatry journals; perhaps US psychiatrists called the notion something else... or they did not find worthwhile discussing. Actually, one US (VA) psychiatrist, Dansak, who is citing Barton and Whitehead, proposed to call the concept... "tertiary gain of illness" and he (unlike the British) applied a psychoanlitic lens:

PSYCHIATRISTS recognize that their patients acquire certain gains from their emotional problems. The gains were originally defined by Sigmund Freud as the primary and secondary gains of illness.’ The primary gain is an intrapsychic gain which the patient obtains as a result of his symptoms, i.e.. a defense against and a reduction of anxiety. The secondary gain is an interpersonal or social advantage attained by the patient as a consequence of his illness In each case, it is noted, the patient is the one who “benefits.” An intriguing variation of the problem of secondary gain is mentioned by Ross’ in his discussion of the “traumatic neuroses” and their relation to compensation. He gives an example in which “the wife of an injured breadwinner may have gone to work while her husband was incapacitated, contributing to the shift in the family equilibrium. This shift may further a regression in which he becomes like a child or a substitute mother in the home, dependent on his wife. or retaliating for her assumption of his role. The wife may then push for compensation to reduce her own load.” This illustration presents the notion that someone other than the patient may seek or achieve gains from the patient’s illness. In this particular example the gain would be some form of financial compensation that would allow the wife to stop working, hire a maid. etc. The author proposes that gains sought or attained from a patient’s illness by someone other than the patient be called the tertiary gain of illness. Furthermore, though the above example highlights the tertiary gain to the wife of the husband’s acquiring compensation for his injury, all tertiary gains are not financial. The following case will demonstrate another type of tertiary gain, that of expelling the patient from his family.

[case details]

In keeping with the frame of reference of the patient and his illness, the writer proposes to define this phenomenon, where someone other than the patient gains from the latter’s illness, as the tertiary gain of illness. [...] Recent reports in the British literatures have discussed examples of this under the heading of the “Gaslight Phenomenon.”

Also worth noting is that the concept discussed in the medical journals is narrower than what Wikipedia proposes, and it's usually just about having someone committed to a mental institution in inappropriate circumstances. I'm not sure about psychoanalytical papers, I'm not really in a mood to read them now.

However the 2017 hit on "gaslight" in pubmed (from J. Adv. Nurs.) has a quite different tint:

Conduct in our nursing workplaces remains a curious contrast of overt statements about quality, collegiality and community accompanied too often with the opposite (Cassell 2011, Lampman et al. 2009, MacKay et al. 2008, Twale & De Luca 2008). Known as gaslighting (Sarkis 2017), misalignment of words with actions serves to deny or justify bullying and harassment in a language of legitimacy. This behavior includes verbal and non- verbal actions, from overt aggression to subtle but ongoing undermining via institutional means, including: unfair allocation of work and roles, assignment of heavier teaching loads, unfair performance evaluations, and denial of opportunity (Gloor 2014, Cleary et al. 2016).

So it's possible the notion adopted in the US came by a different route (not the British psychiatry journals), which might explain the different connotation as well as the small number of citations for the British papers. The "Sarkis S. (2017)" reference in that 2017 paper alas is just a PT blog.

Dorpat writes in his 2007 book "Crimes of Punishment: America's Culture of Violence" (p. 179):

Like the psychoanalysts Victor Calef and Edward Weinshel, I have adapted a broad definition of gaslighting, one that includes not just those who are made psychotic by it, but a wider range of victims. [...]

A mild and naive form of gaslighting may be carried out by psychotherapists and others who are unaware that they are gaslighting, and who may also be unaware of the harmful effects of what they are doing. I gave examples of psychotherapists and psychoanalysts who were gaslighting patients and did not realize it. [citing his older book mentioned in the other answer]

So I suppose Calef and Weinshel are responsible for broadening the notion, which might explain the number of citations they've got (57 in Google Scholar).

Also note that when applied to therapists this gaslighting clearly falls under iatrogenesis... and iatrogenesis in therapy has been discussed aplenty.

Finally (I hope!) Gass and Nichols (1988) talk about gaslighting in the context of extramarital affairs:

"The worst part, Harry, is the lying."

"I'm not lying; you're just imagining things."

Such conversations become a vicious part of the interaction between some husbands and wives. The husband gaslights or distorts reality in an effort to convince his spouse that she is crazy, that what she is perceiving is not happening.

They don't cite any other paper for their use of the term.

  • $\begingroup$ That's an interesting twist - that it is a technical term that means something different. $\endgroup$ Jan 8, 2018 at 5:13
  • $\begingroup$ @Oddthinking: yeah it's a fairly fuzzy concept. It can mean different things to different people, even in peer-reviewed publications, depending on the field of study or country. $\endgroup$ Jan 8, 2018 at 5:29

Came across this article 2018 by Riggs and Bartholomaeus and thought of this question. Gaslighting is more common in casual parlance than in the academic literature. There is great difficulty in studying gaslighting as it is inherently relational and by definition, the individual is being manipulated by the other person. It is a very personal experience making it quite hard to objectively study so making it a very difficult to investigate scientifically. Riggs defined gaslighting -

Gaslighting is about subtly conveying to a person that their own judgment is not to be trusted and that they are not competent, thus undermining their confidence in being able to trust their own views and experiences.

Riggs illustrates with case examples how gaslighting is an identity-related abuse and uses his experience with transgender clients to illustrate the gaslighting experiences with parents of transgender children.

gaslighting is centrally about issues of power and control (as is true for any form of abuse), in contexts where power differentials are already significant (such as in parent–child relationships), this can exacerbate the likelihood that control techniques such as gaslighting will occur, and minimise the likelihood that they will be identified by others.

I do like the discussion about the therapeutic approaches that a clinician can take to help ameliorate the impact and validate the impact of gaslighting on the client.


Riggs, D. W., & Bartholomaeus, C. (2018). Gaslighting in the context of clinical interactions with parents of transgender children. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 33(4), 382–394. https://doi.org/10.1080/14681994.2018.1444274

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks, Poidah. This shows a single paper that uses the term. As I said in the question, I could find references to it, but nothing that convinced me it was widely accepted as a concept. This doesn't help - especially as the authors felt the need to define the term in the limited space of an abstract; they couldn't assume their colleagues knew what it meant. See also the comments on the accepted answer. $\endgroup$ Sep 1, 2019 at 12:37
  • $\begingroup$ I was just commenting on a single paper and I did not make any comment about how accepted it is or not. If there was a paper that surveyed therapists/psychologists, that would be a better paper. But I have not come across such a paper as yet $\endgroup$
    – Poidah
    Sep 1, 2019 at 12:44
  • $\begingroup$ I understand. As such, this doesn't answer the question. $\endgroup$ Sep 1, 2019 at 17:05
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    $\begingroup$ Widely accepted is a ridiculous term. It is used and this is an example of a recent publication. A survey of psychologists and therapists of different types would be a better way to go. $\endgroup$
    – Poidah
    Sep 1, 2019 at 20:48

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