Gaslighting as a Manipulation Tactic: What It Is, Who Does It, And Why
By Dr George Simon, PhD
Gaslighting is a sophisticated manipulation tactic which certain types of personalities use to create doubt in the minds of others. Here’s how it works and what to watch out for.
In a stage play and suspense thriller from the 1930s entitled “Gas Light,” a conniving husband tries to make the wife he wishes to get rid of think she is losing her mind by making subtle changes in her environment, including slowly and steadily dimming the flame on a gas lamp. In recent years, the term “gaslighting” has come to be applied to attempts by certain kinds of personalities, especially psychopaths — who are among the personalities most adept at sophisticated tactics of manipulation — to create so much doubt in the minds of their targets of exploitation that the victim no longer trusts their own judgment about things and buys into the assertions of the manipulator, thus coming under their power and control.
Effective gaslighting can be accomplished in several different ways. Sometimes, a person can assert something with such an apparent intensity of conviction that the other person begins to doubt their own perspective. Other times, vigorous and unwavering denial coupled with a display of righteous indignation can accomplish the same task. Bringing up historical facts that seem largely accurate but contain minute, hard-to-prove distortions and using them to “prove” the correctness of one’s position is another method. Gaslighting is particularly effective when coupled with other tactics such as shaming and guilting. Anything that aids in getting another person to doubt their judgment and back down will work.
Gaslighting is just one of the many weapons in the arsenal of personalities hell-bent on having their way, even if it means doing so by subtle and covert means of conning others. One of the most important points I make in all my articles, books, and other writings about the narcissistic and most especially, the aggressive personalities, is that they will do whatever it takes to secure and maintain a position of advantage over others. And some of the most effective means at their disposal are tactics that conceal their malevolent intent while simultaneously prompting their “target” to accede to their desires. I outline the most common ones covertly aggressive folks use to manipulate others in my book In Sheep’s Clothing [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK]. But it would be virtually impossible to fully list all of the various tactics expert manipulators use.
Deception is often the key ingredient in manipulation. Deception can be accomplished by outright denial, distortion of key aspects of events, and a variety of other methods, especially the more sophisticated lying techniques. And, as I have mentioned in a prior post (see “Lying: The Ultimate Manipulation Tactic”), a really accomplished liar can deceive another person by merely reciting a litany of absolutely true things — while deliberately and cleverly leaving out one or two crucial elements that would change the entire character of what they’re trying to make you believe. But a common element among all the tactics manipulators use is that they cause the person being targeted to doubt their gut instincts about what’s going on. Their gut tells them they’re under attack or that someone is trying to get the better of them, and they intuitively go on the defensive. But because they often can’t find any clear, direct, objective evidence that the other person is merely trying to disadvantage them, they start doubting and questioning themselves. This is the real secret of effective manipulation. If the “target” were solidly convinced they were in the process of being done in, they’d more likely put up more resistance instead of capitulating. Manipulators know this. They win by getting the other person to back down or give in.
Gaslighting has come to some prominence lately because several authors have highlighted it as one of the more crafty tactics psychopaths use to disadvantage their victims. But many character-disturbed individuals, most especially the aggressive personalities, are prone to using numerous tactics, including covert techniques, to get the better of their targets. Their goal is always to win or secure whatever it is they want. And they’ll do whatever they have to do to get it. Sometimes the most effective way to do that is to avoid red-flagging their intentions but rather get the other person to unwittingly but voluntarily surrender. Instill shame, instill guilt, instill fear, or instill great doubt, and the other person will likely back off the stance they really wanted to take.
I have written a series of articles on the manipulation tactics of covertly-aggressive and other disturbed personalities (see my Series on Manipulation Tactics). In that series, many of the most common manipulation tactics are revealed and discussed. Regretfully, I didn’t originally include a post on “gaslighting”. Hopefully, this post will serve to help remedy that omission.