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Gaslighting Isn’t Just Psychological Abuse, It’s A Sociological Phenomenon

Ingrid Berman and Angela Lansbury in 1944’s Gaslight

In 1944, Ingrid Bergman starred in a film directed by George Cukor about an opera singer who inadvertently marries her aunt’s murderer.

You might’ve never heard of this movie, or the 1940 British film (and 1938 play) it’s based on. Nonetheless, it’s almost certainly influenced conversations you’ve had, as people around you describe partners, friends, or even the President of the United States. The film’s title: Gaslight.

“Gaslighting,” the act of manipulating or challenging another person’s perception of reality, isn’t by any stretch a modern phenomenon. Almost two centuries before gaslighters tormented the characters in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Plato wrote in his book The Republic that men’s souls found nothing more aberrant than adhering to a truth they know in their hearts was false.

This seemingly timeless practice gets its modern name from the 1944 film Gaslight, which adeptly depicts the danger these behaviours pose to its targets, particularly women. While gaslighting as a conscious and deliberate tactic of abuse is commonly found in romantic relationships, a gaslighter can be anyone with power or influence over you: a partner, a coworker, a boss, a lawyer, or even a nurse.

In a study submitted to the American Sociological Review, Dr. Paige L. Sweet contends that gaslighting is rooted in social inequalities; social and institutional systems, like the court system or one’s workplace, are critical sites for gaslighting where others are easily co-opted as colluders into abuse.

“Psychological theories suggest that gaslighting takes place in an isolated dyad,” Sweet explains. “In contrast, I propose that gaslighting draws from and exacerbates the gender-based power imbalances present in intimate relationships and in the larger social context.”

And exposing the deception of a gaslighter doesn’t necessarily mitigate any power differential that might exist between them and their target. Similarly, becoming aware that you are being gaslit doesn’t make you immune to its effects.

Big Problems with Little Joe

Gaslight demonstrates how this behaviour manifests in intimate interpersonal relationships. For an example of how gaslighting works within a social system, one can look to the 2019 Jessica Hausner movie Little Joe.

Little Joe tells the story of Alice, a plant breeder developing a flower that induces happiness in its owners by emitting oxytocin, what many call “the love hormone.” As Alice works to bring the flower to market, everyone around her begins to change. Her coworker Bella’s dog becomes aggressive; her nebbish lab partner aggressively flirts with her; her son gets a girlfriend and becomes preoccupied with moving out to the country to live with his estranged father.

“Little Joe,” as the flower is named, makes people happy, but it also makes them obsessed with caring for and propagating it. Little Joe adapts to its inability to reproduce by influencing the sapient lives around it, altering their personalities to ensure its cultivation and survival.

Planting the Idea

This plot point may sound like Little Shop of Horrors, but it has some basis in botanical behavior.

In her book Braiding Sweetgrass, botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer describes how trees engage in a form of predator satiation known as “mast seeding” that influences the behavior of squirrels and their predators to ensure their reproduction:

When the trees produce more than the squirrels can eat, some nuts escape predation. Likewise, when the squirrel larders are packed with nuts, the plump pregnant mamas have more babies in each litter and the squirrel population skyrockets. Which means that the hawk mamas have more babies, and fox dens are full too. But when the next fall comes, the happy days are over, because the trees have shut off nut production. There’s little to fill the squirrels’ larders now—they come home empty-handed—so they go out looking, harder and harder, exposing themselves to the increased population of watchful hawks and hungry foxes. The predator-prey ratio is not in their favour, and through starvation and predation the squirrel population plummets and the woods grow quiet without their chattering. You can imagine the trees whispering to each other at this point, ‘There are just a few squirrels left. Wouldn’t this be a good time to make some nuts?’

– Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer

Go Ask Alice

Little Joe is an “us and them” film in the vein of Invasion of the Body Snatchers or The Faculty: it creates tension through the transition of some of us into more of them.

Like the trees in Kimmerer’s example, the flower helps create its own protectors, who conspire to convert those they can and punish or expel anyone who is not yet convinced of the flower’s value. 

In one scene, a handful of people who’ve been inoculated by the flower admit this to Alice and then mock her for believing them. This truth does not set Alice free. The people manipulating her are still her coworkers, friends and family members, structures Alice can’t force herself to abandon, even as those structures pose material threats to her safety.

Within a dynamic of gaslighting, to reject the reality that you are crazy is evidence of your craziness. It’s not always a situation one can “out-think”; the lie of a gaslighter doesn’t thrive on the cleverness of its design but on how well it embeds into the social structures that surround and define our lives.

Using the theoretical framework outlined here, we can avoid calling this just a “bad” interpersonal situation. Instead, we can analyze how gaslighting dynamics are made possible and effective due to gender-based stereotypes, intersecting inequalities, and institutional vulnerabilities. The context of a hierarchical institutional setting is especially critical in this case. Gender is still relevant to the construction of rationality here, although less so as an individual-level variable. Overall, gaslighting mobilizes and worsens the power inequalities already present in the relationship and in the institutional setting.

–Sweet, “The Sociology of Gaslighting.”

Shining A (Gas)Light On History

Of course, storylines in movies are not necessarily objective representations of the world. They’re media, which is by its nature susceptible to power dynamics.

The 1944 Gaslight was greenlit based on the success of the 1940 British version of the movie. But when MGM bought the rights to the script, they ordered all prints of the original British film be destroyed so the film couldn’t be compared to any predecessor. This could explain why most sources credit the 1944 Gaslight with giving a name to the behaviour—most of us have no inkling that any prior film existed.

This in itself might be an argument in favour of a sociological understanding of gaslighting: the phenomenon is so tied to power structures that its namesake is itself the product of manipulating perception.


1. Paige L. Sweet, American Sociological Review 2019, Vol. 84(5) 851–875