Un-Gaslighting

Have you seen the classic movie, Gaslight?  It’s the story of a husband who slowly manipulates his wife into believing that she is insane because she imagines things, which are real, such as a gaslight flickering.

This is the film noir version of the Marx Brothers quip, “Who you gonna believe, me or your lying eyes?”

Our eyes sometimes do deceive us – but so do liars and other con artists.

Gaslighting has become a hot topic in the era of President Trump, who has told thousands of well-documented misrepresentations during his presidency.  When confronted with clear evidence of his deceptions, he typically “doubles down” and elaborates them.

The Washington Post published an article by Eric Beerbohm and Ryan Davis, professors of government and political science, who are writing a book on gaslighting and un-gaslighting.  They write:

The gaslighted person loses confidence in his ability to see what’s right in front of him.  He must have been mistaken, he thinks, and is troubled by this.  But today the term more often refers to what happens in the political sphere.  There, instead of being convinced that their perceptions are faulty, partisans report being especially confident in their mistaken beliefs.

A deceiver distorts evidence with the aim of making you form a false belief. Expose the distortion, and voilà, all is right and true again.  A gaslighter, by contrast, works at a more foundational level, trying to make you doubt your understanding of the world and undermine your confidence in your reasoning. …

Successful gaslighting can undermine beliefs not just one at a time but wholesale.  If you interfere with evidence that supports my evidence, you might make me doubt myself as a thinker altogether.  Ultimately, I outsource that critical function to the gaslighter.  Politicians lie.  Gaslighters build alternative realities.

The authors note that many politicians have lied, but Mr. Trump has “mastered the art” of gaslighting.  The clearest illustration was his exhortation:  “Stick with us.  Don’t believe the crap you see from these people, the fake news. … What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.”

This is a fundamental technique of totalitarian and cult leaders – convincing people to believe whatever the leader says, regardless of what they see with their own eyes.  This is illustrated in George Orwell’s book, 1984, where he wrote, “The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears.  It was their final, most essential command.”

In another Washington Post article, marketing Professor Kathleen D. Vohs explains why people who have been gaslit are resistant to persuasion by evidence and logic.

Cognitive dissonance, first described by the psychologist Leon Festinger in the late 1950s, occurs when conflict emerges between what people want to believe and the reality that threatens those beliefs.  The human mind does not like such inconsistencies:  They set off alarms that spur the mind to alter some beliefs to make the perceived reality fit with one’s preferred views.

Professor Vohs uses this insight to explain why Mr. Trump’s supporters don’t believe that his statements that certain Congress members of color should go back to their countries are racist.

In the case of Trump’s remarks — when absorbed by his supporters who do not consider themselves racist — those inconsistencies can be summarized in a sort of syllogism: (1) I do not support racists.  (2) I do support President Trump.  (3) President Trump has just made a racist remark.  Those three facts simply don’t fit together comfortably in the mind. …

Supporters of Trump who experience cognitive dissonance over his remarks essentially have three psychological options to resolve it, altering in various ways the three beliefs that are in tension.  One is to change the belief that they do not support racists.  This response is unlikely, however, because it would require a massive overhaul of the view of the self, placing the person in a category he or she knows is morally dubious, not to mention socially vilified. …

Another option is to introduce new beliefs that bolster support for Trump. This does not address the conflicts among beliefs head-on but rather lessens the impact of the inflammatory statement by considering positive information about the president.  One approach along these lines is to emphasize the awfulness of the policy positions and statements of the congresswomen Trump attacked, thereby casting the president as a defender of decency (and perhaps as a victim himself, not an aggressor). …

A third route to resolving dissonance, in this specific case, is to flatly (and boldly) reject the consensus that telling someone to “go back” to their family’s country of origin is racist.

Professor Vohs argues that these supporters have to do “mental contortions to explain away the ugliness, to justify their continued support of him — and to maintain their positive views of themselves.”

How To Un-Gaslight

Presenting evidence may not undo gaslighting and, ironically, may backfire by reinforcing people’s false beliefs.  Professors Beerbohm and Davis write, “Gaslighting explains why fact-checking generally doesn’t work.  And if the truth contradicts people’s favored leaders, hearing it might even push some voters to harden their opposition to it.”

The authors argue that, rather than convincing people about particular factual arguments, un-gaslighting involves restoring people’s confidence in their own reasoning capacity.  They suggest three ways to do this.

First, look for something in the gaslighted person’s belief system that you can accept, and tell them that you do.  Political scientists Toby Bolsen and James Druckman have found that if people feel validated, they also feel less pressure to double down on false views.  Second, acknowledge times when you’ve sincerely felt bamboozled into taking a mistaken stance.  When it comes to motivated reasoning, who among us is without sin?  Third, ask questions.  In a widely applicable social scientific study, Joshua Kalla of Yale and David Broockman of Stanford showed that persuasion is sometimes possible, even on politically charged issues.  If you can ask people questions about when they’ve felt misunderstood, they might find it easier to see things from the opposing side.  People don’t need more facts or better reasoning skills.  They need to be able to acknowledge the ideas of others and know that their own ideas are recognized, too (emphasis added).

For Democratic political leaders and activists, this analysis suggests that they should generally avoid arguing about the facts.  Rather, when communicating with Trump supporters who might not vote for him in the next election, Democrats should try to identify shared values, acknowledge their own uncertainties, and ask questions.  Considering that most people who truly are gaslit have deeply defended views, these strategies are not likely to work with them.  However, these strategies might be effective with some people who don’t support Mr. Trump as strongly.

Conversely, many Republicans believe that Democrats are the ones who have been gaslit by believing reports in the “Fake News Media.”  Mr. Trump has adopted a political strategy of appealing only to his “base” and he isn’t interested in trying to un-gaslight his opponents.  However, other Republican candidates, particularly those in “swing” states and districts, are more likely to try this approach.  Indeed, it’s a common political strategy.

Using These Techniques in Dispute Resolution

Folks in the DR world are familiar with Professors Beerbohm’s and Davis’s strategies.  When people have crystalized disputes, they will reach agreement only if one or both of them change their views.  In some situations, they may be convinced to change simply by digesting evidence and facts that contradict their views.  Often, however, people have strong emotional and cognitive biases that impair their judgment, so starting by arguing about the facts may be ineffective or even counterproductive.

Regardless of how committed other people are to their beliefs and worldviews, it’s generally a good idea to start by looking for commonalities, acknowledging one’s uncertainties, and asking sincere questions.  Doing this can be effective if it implicitly reflects respect for others and a real desire to understand how the world looks through their eyes.

I’m sure that many of the best negotiators and mediators do this intuitively.

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