A Shared Secret Between Psychological Abuse and Journalism
Mind Over Matter
Do you ever find yourself repeatedly bewildered after a simple conversation with a certain person in your life, the kind that leaves you circling the drain of self-doubt and conflicting perceptions? If so, you may be experiencing a pattern of mental abuse labeled as gaslighting.
The term refers to a 1940’s film, Gaslight, starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer. The plot depicts a charming abuser bombarding his victim with psychological schemes to impair reality, creating an environment of FOG (fear, obligation, and guilt). His deceitful intention is to force his beautiful and talented wife (an opera singer) to concede to his dominance and control. Obvious to the audience are signs and symptoms of psychological and emotional abuse. However, for real-life victims, mind games that perpetuate mental and emotional turmoil have zero entertainment value.
The full-length movie, Gaslight, is available for your viewing pleasure by clicking the image below. Warning! Do not adjust your screen. The video stream is in the original black and white format.
In her book, The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life, Dr. Robin Stern describes a process of psychological manipulation between a person who afflicts subtle tactics to cause another to question their sense of reality. Dr. Stern explains, “The Gaslight Effect results from a relationship between two people: a gaslighter, who needs to be right in order to preserve his own sense of self and his sense of having power in the world; and a gaslightee, who allows the gaslighter to define her sense of reality because she idealizes him and seeks his approval. Gaslighters and gaslightees can be of either gender, and gaslighting can happen in any type of relationship.”
Dr. Stern defines three stages and warning signs that characterize the gaslighting effect.
Stage 1: Disbelief
This is the beginning of a tail spinning collision and a defining moment when the victim identifies red flags as warnings or dismisses them as minor flaws. In this stage, the gaslighter may make slight comments that you know aren’t valid but seem harmless and easy to dismiss. After a while, these festering remarks accumulate enough to bring forth a reasonable discussion. The gaslighter will distort their words to make it seem the insult or accusation is a misinterpretation and even blame the victim of being too sensitive. The gaslightee begins to doubt his or her memory of events and conversations for the sake of harmony and fear of conflict.
Stage 2: Defense
As defined by Dr. Stern, “Stage 2 is marked by the need to defend yourself. You search for evidence to prove your gaslighter wrong and argue with him obsessively, often in your head, desperately trying to win his approval.”
In the midst of Stage 2, the victim merely functions in a FOG of ambiguity with a compulsion for affirmation.
Stage 3: Depression
This stage is the worst of all because the victim has fallen into an exhausting pattern of inconsistent thoughts, a stressful state of mind when contradictory beliefs, ideas, and values interfere with behaviors and attitudes. The symptoms of mental abuse creep into every aspect of the victim’s life and can cause anxiety disorders that require medical treatment. Validating that gaslighting exists is a good first dose of certainty for victims of insidious mental and emotional schemes.
Thinking Through The Process
Psychological tactics vary but the primary goal is to disguise the intention and distort perception to gain power. A perplexing question lingers amid the probe into mental manipulation; how can a confident and intelligent woman or man be duped into questioning their sense of reality?
Through researching sources for credible data, and just plain curiosity, a fundamental understanding of mental discord in the realm of conflict supplies an answer. Theories linking cognitive processes and internal stress of contradicting beliefs provide insight into why and how people are vulnerable to covert manipulation.
Cognition is a mental process of knowledge to compose thoughts that shape perceptions and behaviors. A Macat Analysis, created by Cambridge University for critical thinking applications, provides an acute interpretation of Leon Festinger’s, A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance.
Clarified by the Macat Analysis, Festinger’s rationale explains, “Any pair of cognitions can have one of three relationships: they may be consonant, dissonant, or relevant. People experience discomfort when confronted with a lack of alignment or cognitive dissonance. Four situations often bring dissonance: decision-making, forced compliance, acquiring new information, and social interactions. People like their beliefs and behaviors to be consistent. When they are inconsistent, they feel uncomfortable.”
According to the Macat Analysis, “Festinger’s theories are recognized standards by acclaimed psychologists and applied in thousands of experiments. Cognitive dissonance has even escaped academia and entered popular culture. The presence of the term cognitive dissonance in public discourse demonstrates how widespread the phenomenon is. People are aware of it because they are likely to have experienced it. There are numerous articles and opinions online that apply cognitive dissonance to “real-life” issues such freedom of speech, religion, politics, and public health.”
Psychological manipulation is an avenue to enforce compliance and may combine social, personality, behavioral, and cognitive elements; it is not exclusive to personal relationships. Besides business, government, and religion (to name a few), mass media intentionally exaggerates, conceals, and divulges information to influence perception and behavior.
Objective and Balanced Super Powers
Aligning to the theme of distorting reality and revealing a common trait between journalism and psychological abuse, the following content continues with an exploration into true-story reporting.
A National Post article by John Fraser titled, “Lies, Damn Lies: In the Struggle to Tell the Truth, the Facts are Sometimes Lost,” gives a synopsis of multiple news media outlets exploiting victim’s tales. Commenting on an episode of Undercurrents, Fraser states, “…as a devastating reminder of how dangerous and wounding it can be for ordinary people to get caught up in the news.” The 1999 article is old news considering today’s neck-breaking speed of communication, but his argument bestows legitimate skepticism for relying on investigative journalism for truth when the reporter may leave out or embellish facts for the purpose of dramatization. Apprehension to believe what is real or arranged information is an unavoidable angst, more so with present day instantaneous news feeds. Fraser also refers to an article that became a book written by Janet Malcolm, The Journalist and the Murder, a controversial inspection of ethics and psychopathology in journalism. Fraser dignifies Malcolm’s claims, “all relations between reporters and the person being reported, constitutes acts of duplicity.” Quoting Malcolm, “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.”
Fraser’s article isn’t the only source in my research that touched on Malcolm’s contentious ideas. The award-winning podcast, Serial, narrated and co-produced by Sarah Koenig, a former newspaper reporter with a seasoned career in covering politics and criminal justice, exhumes the 1999 murder of a teenager, Hae Min Lee. The trial that led to a convicting Lee’s ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, unfolds with twists and turns over the course of two seasons of episodes. The nonfiction true crime story launches by posing Syed as an innocent teenager wrongly convicted of murder and serving over 15 years in prison as an innocent man. After listening to completion the first season of Serial, I appreciate the excellence in creating an intriguing nonfiction story that fuels an addiction for resolve, especially in an audio format.
In every episode, I found myself both frustrated and fascinated by the weaving of facts and speculation with characters who are real humans bound together by a real murder. Koenig’s presentation of conflicting testimonies, timelines, and events provoke a familiar discomfort by the inability to make sense of the facts. Experiencing cognitive dissonance when tuning into Serial, turns on my internal radar for detecting red flags of manipulation. I’m not alone.
A Buzzfeed News article written by Lincoln Michel, “The One Book Every Serial Fan Should Read. Why Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer is Essential Reading for Serial Listeners,” supports my hesitation for accepting true story reporting as dogmatic. Michel explains, “The show is highly engrossing, and the case does feel like a genuine mystery. The way Koenig structures the “chapters” leaves the listener changing their mind about the case a half-dozen times an episode.” Michel’s article goes on to compare Malcolm and Koenig, “Even more important than the murder investigation is the fact that Malcolm’s book is an investigation into the ethics of journalism. Like Koenig, Malcolm gives you a fascinating look at the investigative process as well as commentary on the process itself. Koenig regularly interjects her reasons for withholding information or explains why she is backtracking on previous claims or opinions.”
As I continued prying the search for proving myself wrong (quip intended), I found more reason to trust my internal radar. One after another, after another, my search bridged links amongst links to articles, news feeds, and social media refer to Serial as an addiction and well-polished journalism to “elicit a certain response from the audience.” Slate, a digital magazine for social news, illustrates the fascination of Serial as observed by Hannah Rosin in an article post, “The Real Secret of Serial.” Rosin writes, “If Koenig has actually figured out what she thinks then the whole enterprise feels a shade more manipulative, or perhaps artificial. Koenig is withholding information she already knows from the audience to build suspense and hook us in various ways. She is playing the innocent in order to elicit a certain response from her audience. She is leading us through a re-enactment, not a discovery. There’s nothing wrong with that; true crime shows and even books do it routinely. (Although it’s a bit of a wrinkle that Serial leaves us hanging and waiting week after week, always wondering what Koenig knows that we don’t.) It’s definitely effective. But it’s not the authentic experience we think we are having.”
Please, take a moment to pause and read the following definitions carefully.
Back To The Future
Social dialogue sites such as Reddit, agree that the popular podcast, Serial, is the reason a wrongly convicted man, imprisoned for over 17 years (half his life), is granted a new trial. Reported by Jonah Engel Bromwich and Liam Stack in The New York Times digital issue dated June 30, 2016, Syed’s attorney, C. Justin Brown, issued merit to the popular podcast. “Serial turned speculation about Mr. Syed’s guilt and whether he had received a fair trial into something of a national pastime in 2014. The show was downloaded more than 100 million times and won a Peabody Award for its role in illuminating flaws in the criminal justice system. At a news conference in Baltimore, Mr. Brown was asked if he thought there was any chance that the retrial could have come about without Serial. “I don’t think so,” he said. On the possibility that Mr. Syed may eventually go free, Mr. Brown said: “I’m feeling pretty confident right now. This was the biggest hurdle. It’s really hard to get a new trial.”
To assume a corrected version of a first trial will change the verdict in a second trial is naive. It is imperative to recognize hindsight hinders perception with bias of all parties involved in a new trial. For instance, knowledge from the previous outcomes is impossible to suppress. Another consideration is the complexity of processing memory as both a disadvantage and advantage of hindsight. True story reporting of criminal cases after conviction have the advantage of hindsight particularly in discovery of evidence and incompetent defense counsel. In the throws of adjudication of criminals, the problem of hindsight is an obstruction of error correction. Insight into cognitive psychology about the interactive process of scrutinizing evidence that is interpreted and evaluated by a selective jury is bridged together with other evidence, not in isolation. (Griffin)
Connecting The Dots
In conclusion, a common trait shared in psychological abuse and true-story journalism is manipulation, but the shared secret is cognitive dissonance. The purpose of this research project is to bring awareness to devious attempts intended to recreate a sense of reality. Psychological manipulation occurs by withholding, redefining, and structuring factual information to achieve control. The mind assembles experiences, beliefs, and behaviors to form perceptions that are fragile in fresh students in the school of life. I want readers to feel empowered to question the circumstances when doubt looms in the face of truth. A little suspicion in people and areas that influence our thoughts is appropriate. Knowledge is power in a climate of mental and emotional stress to preserve sanity and confident judgment.