Gaslighting and its application to interpersonal violence

Published date25 January 2023
Date25 January 2023
Subject MatterHealth & social care,Criminology & forensic psychology
AuthorPrashansa Dickson,Jane L. Ireland,Philip Birch
Gaslighting and its application to
interpersonal violence
Prashansa Dickson, Jane L. Ireland and Philip Birch
Purpose The study aims to examine the nature of gaslighting and how it relates to interpersonal
Design/methodology/approach It does so first through applicationof a Rapid Evidence Assessment
(REA) to understandhow gaslighting is understood academically.This RAE captured 50 articles, with12
retained for thematicreview. Results were then used to develop a gaslightingbehaviour measure, which
was thenapplied in an online study of adults (n=386; 77.2% women).
Findings Five themeswere identified from the REA: componentsof gaslighting; gaslighting asa tool for
abuse; perpetrators as damaged manipulators; experiences and characteristics of victims; and
institutional and racialgaslighting. In the ensuing study, results demonstratedthat emotional abuse was
broadly related bothto the perpetration and experiencing of gaslighting,indicating that it may represent
an extension of emotionalabuse. The relationship to trait aggressionwas limited and primarily isolated to
victims presenting with higher levels of trait aggression capturing more emotional components (e.g.
Research limitations/implications The importance of context in understanding the relationship
between gaslighting, emotional abuse and aggression was indicated, with some complexity found.
Suggestionsfor future research are made.
Practical implications Accounting for context in understanding gaslighting is key. Developing and
validating measuresfor gaslighting would assist with the evaluation of this behaviour.When working with
those who have a history of emotional abuse,considering gaslighting as a further element is potentially
important. It should notbe assumed that gaslighting has an association with non-emotionalaggression;
the typeof relationship where it is occurring is important.
Originality/value This study is the first to considerthe development of a gaslighting measure, whichis
informedby a methodological review of the literature.
Keywords Gaslighting, Partner violence, Emotional abuse, Trait aggression, AQ, MMEA, GBQ
Paper type Research paper
The origins of the term gaslighting generates from a play by Patrick Hamilton (1939)
called Gas Light, in which a protagonist is confronted for manipulative behaviour,
which is denied and the accuser is subjected to a variety of covert abusive tactics,
including threats, shaming, projecting blame, anger and feigning ignorance/confusion to
have them committed to an asylum. The play’s protagonist displays tactics affiliated with
gaslighting behaviour, as it is describedtoday (Barton and Whitehead, 1969;Dorpat, 1996),
with the accuser’s response representative of how many victims of gaslighting are
understood in the academic literature(Dorpat, 1996;Gass and Nichols, 1988).
One of earliest academic accounts of gaslighting appears that of Barton and Whiteh ead
(1969) through two case studies of men who had been subjected to covert for ms of abuse by
their wives. Both men were originally admitted to hospital with ac cusations of violence and
aggression, which they denied. Once admitted, both displaye d symptoms of mild depression
and anxiety, yet no other violent or unstable tendencies. Mi ld depression and anxiety are now
believed to be common symptoms for victims of gaslighting (Gass and Nichols, 1988). Soon, it
Prashansa Dickson is
based at the Department of
Psychology, Georgia State
University, Atlanta,
Georgia, USA.
Jane L. Ireland is based at
the School of Psychology,
University of Central
Lancashire, Preston, UK
and Ashworth Research
Centre, Mersey Care NHS
Trust, England, UK.
Philip Birch is based at the
School of International
Studies and Education,
University of Technology
Sydney, Sydney, Australia.
Received 7 July 2022
Revised 19 October 2022
Accepted 26 November 2022
DOI 10.1108/JCRPP-07-2022-0029 VOL. 9 NO. 1 2023, pp. 31-46, ©Emerald Publishing Limited, ISSN 2056-3841 jJOURNAL OF CRIMINOLOGICAL RESEARCH, POLICY AND PRACTICE jPAGE 31
was discovered that their wives had been unfaithful b ut were denying this behaviour to their
husbands. When one of the men confronted his wife about her infi delity, she told him to “not be
silly”, and accused him of being “a drunk” who should be “locked away” (Barton and
Whitehead, 1969, p. 1259). Such minimisation and threatening tactics are though t commonly
used by the perpetrators of gaslighting (Abramson, 2014;Dorpat, 1996;G ass and Nichols,
Other examples of gaslighting identify similar instances of people being manipulated with
the purpose of hospital admission (Lund and Gardiner, 1977;Smith and Sinanan, 1972).
Smith and Sinanan (1972), for example, discuss cases of women admitted to psychiatric
care because of induced psychosis or severe depression, which manifested solely as a
result of their husbands’ repeated and covert manipulation. In one case, the husband tried
to convince his wife of her “madness” and threatened to have her committed to hospital
(Smith and Sinanan, 1972, p. 686). Once she arrived at the hospital, “it became apparent to
the treatment team that he was tryingto induce illness in his wife” (Smith and Sinanan, 1972,
p. 686). Of significance, Barton and Whitehead (1969) is one of the few examples that
discusses instances of men being victims of gaslighting, as most written accounts of
gaslighting focus on cases in which men perpetrate such abuse towards women
(Abramson, 2014;Calef and Weinshel, 1981;Dorpat, 1996;Gass and Nichols, 1988).
Evidence tends to suggest thatwomen are more likely to be victims rather than perpetrators
of gaslighting (Dorpat, 1996;Gass and Nichols, 1988), that this form of abuse can occur in
a variety of interpersonal relationships, and especially when there is a power difference
evidenced, e.g. in marriages, in workplace and in politics (Abramson, 2014;Simon, 2010;
Gibson, 2017).
Case studies describing gaslighting have proved useful in attempti ng to operationalise the
components of such abuse. The term gaslighting has seemingly evolved from de scribing
behaviour that focuses on convincing someone of their “insa nity” (Hamilton, 1939), to a wider
range of covert manipulative behaviours prevalent across interpersonal re lationships
(Abramson, 2014;Dorpat, 1996). Calef and Weinshel (1981) were the first clinicians to put
forward the idea that gaslighting is better understood as an instance of projective
identification, namely a defence mechanism where negative emotions or unwante d self-
perceptions of the gaslighter are projected onto their victim. Dorpat (1996) also incorporated
this view in their definition of gaslighting, extending it to group as well as individual behaviour
and defining it as a, “type of projective identification in which an indivi dual (or group of
individuals) attempt to influence the mental functioning of a second individual by causing the
latter to doubt the validity of his or her judgments, percepti ons, and/or reality testing in order
that the victim will more readily submit his [sic] will and person to the victimizer” (p. 6).
Contemporaneously, the concept of gaslighting is viewed as a complex form of psychological
manipulation where one individual’s behaviour (whether intention al or unintentional)
undermines another’s reality through a variety of repetitive and em otionally manipulative
techniques, including minimising, threats and feigning ignorance/ confusion (Barton and
Whitehead, 1969;CalefandWeinshel,1981;Dorpat, 1996;Riggs and Bartholomaeus, 2018).
Gaslighting as a term has also seen renewed popularity in describing the behaviour of some
politicians and journalists (Gibson, 2017;Avila, 2018).
Finally, research exploring gaslighting has focused on victims, particularly within the
intimate relationship domain, rather than capturing perpetrators. It is, for example, possible
that the perpetrators of this abuse may show proclivity for perpetrating other forms of
emotional abuse or aggression (Abramson, 2014;Simon, 2011). This is, as yet,
unaddressed, with the association between gaslighting and aggression surprisingly
unresearched. Focus instead has been on the psychological abuse experiences of victims
(Wozolek, 2018). There has alsobeen no attempt to integrate the research into a wider body
of literature on indirect aggression, namely, that which occurs when the intent and/or
perpetrator can be hidden (Archer and Coyne, 2005). Indirect aggression is a widely

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