There is a lot of buzz around the term gaslighting. It comes up on the news, on TV, and in movies, as the punch line to jokes, and in hit songs. We've heard of politicians, doctors, parents, and romantic partners who have all been accused of gaslighting.  Despite all the buzz, not much scientific research has been done on this topic.

What is Gaslighting?

Most people think gaslighting means trying to drive another person "crazy" or make them think they're crazy. I define gaslighting as one person causing another to doubt their own thoughts, feelings, memories, and beliefs. Gaslighting can take many forms from outright calling someone crazy/irrational/oversensitive, to twisting the facts, refusing to talk about issues, or saying one thing while doing another.

When I was an undergraduate student at the University of Toronto, the term had already started to pop up everywhere.  Research on gaslighting was scant, and most of it dated to the 1960s and 1970s. Given all the public interest in gaslighting, I decided to do some research. I began with a qualitative study of people who had experienced gaslighting and asked them to describe their experiences. Most research to that point focused on gaslighting in close or romantic relationships, so my colleagues and I began there.

We had several research questions: How do relationships that involve gaslighting start, how do gaslighters behave, how does gaslighting make victims feel, and how do people recover from gaslighting?

Our study was conducted online. We used Reddit and Facebook to recruit participants who believed they had experienced gaslighting in a romantic relationship. Our 65 participants were between 18 and 69, with an average age of 29; 48 of our participants were women, 14 were men, and 3 were non-binary. Most were heterosexual, 19 were bisexual, and 3 identified as gay or lesbian.  We asked participants to respond to open-ended questions.

How Do Gaslighting Relationships Start and How Do Gaslighters Behave?

Consistent with much of the self-help literature and online accounts of gaslighting, we found that most (but not all) gaslighting relationships began with love-bombing. Love-bombing involves a level of affection that is more intense than ordinary relationships, often coupled with large gifts and extravagant far-off plans. At the same time, all of our participants reported that their partner insulted and demeaned them in ways that often implied their grip on reality was tenuous.  Their partners often called them crazy, stupid, or overly emotional. 

Participants also mentioned that their partners blamed them for events that were not their fault, including blaming them for their partner's gaslighting behaviour. Their gaslighting partner's behaviour seemed unpredictable; our participants found it difficult to know when their partners would be angry or affectionate, or when they would yell or give a cold shoulder.

How Does Gaslighting Make People Feel?

Gaslighters' insulting, unpredictable, and blame-ridden behavior significantly affected our participants' sense of self and their ability to trust others. Participants felt as though their self-concept was shrinking, that they were withering away, or somehow broken. They became more guarded and avoided new relationships.

We were surprised to find that some of our participants reported what psychologists refer to as post-traumatic growth. After experiencing and overcoming gaslighting, they felt that they had a clearer sense of self and were more willing to stand up for themselves. Unfortunately, only a minority of the participants reported growth following gaslighting relationships.

How Do People Recover From Gaslighting?

We asked our participants what helped them recover from the abuse they experienced in gaslighting relationships. The most common answer was that simply spending time with other people, family, and friends helped the most. Many participants told us that while in the gaslighting relationship, their partner tried to keep them away from family members and friends. Spending time with people who cared about them and treated them with kindness and empathy was healing. Activities such as outdoor exercise, yoga, and mindfulness also helped our participants regain their sense of self. Participants reported that getting back into old hobbies, especially hobbies that involved self-reflection or moving your body around, helped them feel like they were becoming themselves again.


The amount of scientific literature on gaslighting has grown substantially since I first started researching it. Several themes are starting to emerge in this literature. For one, gaslighting involves a lot more than just calling a person "crazy." Gaslighting negatively impacts a person's sense of self and their relationships. Well-intentioned friends and family also seem to play a key role in helping people escape from and recover from gaslighting.

The scientific study of gaslighting is still in its infancy. It is a very challenging topic to study, but I hope this work leads ultimately to preventing gaslighting and helps targets of gaslighting escape and recover from this form of abuse.

For Further Reading

Klein, W., Li, S., & Wood, S. (2023). A qualitative analysis of gaslighting in romantic relationships. Personal Relationships, 30(4), 1316–1340.

Klein, W., Wood, S., & Bartz, J. (2023). You Think I'm Insane: An Integrative Review and Novel Theoretical Framework for Studying the Phenomenon of Gaslighting. PsyArXiv.

Sodoma, K. A. (2022). Emotional Gaslighting and Affective Empathy. International Journal of Philosophical Studies, 0(0), 1–19.

Willis Klein is a PhD student at McGill University. He studies the epistemic components of close relationships with a particular focus on gaslighting.