Editor’s Note: Robert Klitzman is a professor of psychiatry and director of the masters in bioethics program at Columbia University. He is author of “Designing Babies: How Technology is Changing the Ways We Create Children.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
“I was so upset after the presidential and vice presidential debates, I couldn’t sleep,” a friend told me on a Zoom call. “I’m going to have PTSD!” The tenor of both faceoffs deeply disturbed me, as well.
In watching the debates, many of us cringed, particularly as President Donald Trump continually interrupted former Vice President Joe Biden. We felt as if he were directly attacking our deepest values – our trust in democracy, fairness, common decency and respect for others. Vice President Mike Pence, similarly, interrupted Harris twice as much as she interrupted him, per a CBS analysis, and Susan Page, the moderator, was repeatedly unable to stop him.
The American Psychiatric Association prohibits me, as a psychiatrist, from offering a “professional opinion” about individuals I have not interviewed. However, psychological research has revealed many critical features of interruptions in general.
Studies show that interruptions have “ripple effects” that can disrupt social situations and are not random. Rather, interrupters typically take into account the social context and disrupt other speakers more when they have less of a prior relationship of respect or feel they have more power.
Such aggressive interruptions of others, disregarding boundaries, and seeking to dominate or intimidate others are forms of bullying – efforts to harm people who the perpetrator thinks are vulnerable. Whether verbal or physical, this behavior makes situations tense for not only victims but onlookers, and unfortunately occurs in numerous settings, across many age groups.
Over three-quarters of junior and high school students have been bullied. Over one-third of junior high school students feel unsafe at school as a result, but are commonly afraid to report the problem.
It’s at its worst in seventh grade. I still vividly remember being bullied one morning as I walked to the cafeteria in junior high school. “Hey f*ggot!” a tough student taunted me. I wasn’t sure what the word meant, but sensed it was bad, and hurried away down the shiny yellow cinderblock corridor as quickly as possible, shaking, my heart pounding. Such incidents trigger depression, anxiety, lower self-esteem and even suicidality in many students.
Boys bully more than girls, but do so differently. While boys tend to directly assault others physically, sexually or verbally, girls socially ostracize their victims. Research suggests that bullies typically are “disruptive, lacking in empathy” and have “variable confidence levels … high dominance needs … lack problem resolution skills … and are willing to resort to violence to resolve conflict.”
Adults can bully each other by aggressively interrupting others, disrupting social situations, rankling us. In conversations, research reveals how we usually take turns speaking and respect this norm. Some interruptions can be cooperative – like for example, saying, “Wait a moment – I’m not following you. I may have misunderstood. Do you mean this?” to add or contribute to a conversation.
But many other interjections make us lose our trains of thought, impeding our cognitive processes. When men and women speak to each other, men interrupt more than women. In three-person groups, less intelligent, more neurotic extroverts, who need more social approval, interrupt more than do others.
In conversations among equals, we can say, “Can you please stop interrupting me?” But in other situations, that is hard. Most doctors interrupt patients after the first 11 seconds of their interactions.
Individuals with more power than the bully or interrupter – a teacher or principal – can, however, step in and help. Research has led to successful prevention efforts, especially in schools, using multi-level interventions, with teachers discussing the problem in class 20-40 minutes once a week, encouraging positive relationships and respect for others, supervising lunch, recess and other breaks, learning to detect signs and symptoms, and talking with bullies and their parents.
Offering carrots and sticks – motivators and punishments – can alter many problematic behaviors. Limit-setting is key, and needs to be clear, consistent and simply stated, with a rationale, in a non-punitive way and with alternative behaviors suggested (“I would prefer if you did this instead of that”).
In the presidential debates, Trump, as President, outranked the moderator and Vice President Biden. No higher authority could intervene and stop him. In the vice presidential debate, Pence, as a white male, regularly interrupted Harris, a woman of color.
We could turn the TV off, but many of us remained viscerally shaken, feeling assaulted ourselves, seeing others unfairly attacked, and often reminded of experiences and moments where we were assailed as well.
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Nonetheless, the debates can serve to remind us of the larger problems of individuals bullying and aggressively interrupting others, which occurs daily in many people’s lives – especially children’s – and of how we can work to address and reduce these problems through ongoing scientifically informed interventions and research.
In junior high school, when verbally assaulted, I ran away. Over the years, I’ve learned to respond better.
Hopefully, the debates can increase our awareness of these difficulties, and lead us to address them better in our own and others’ lives, and our broader world.