he US Commission on Presidential Debates muted the microphones of President Donald Trump and his Democratic challenger Joe Biden during portions of their second and final televised encounter on October 22, in order to prevent the candidates from interrupting each other. The panel’s decision followed the widespread negative audience reaction to Trump’s extensive interruptions in the first debate on September 29.
But there is a powerful hidden psychology behind the tactic of interjecting and interrupting. Could these two experienced campaigners – and Trump especially – have used it to their advantage in an attempt to appear more dominant and assertive?
The fact that the debate organisers had to seek a technological solution suggests that interruption might be a more potent tactic than many realise. Political and psychological strategists in both campaigns may increasingly be advocating it as a rhetorical weapon. What do they know that we don’t?
Psychological research involving scientific experiments has found that people evaluate those who interrupt more as being more capable, confident, dominant, and persuasive. But this comes at a price because interrupters are also usually seen as less likeable and attractive.
In the midst of a pandemic, some voters may favour the more dominant candidate and may be less concerned about how likeable he or she is. So, the psychological consequences of interruption can be both positive (being seen as more assertive) and negative (coming across as rude). Interestingly, researchers have found this to be especially true for female interrupters.
Some research has found that men interrupt (especially with intrusive interruptions) more than women do. Other studies indicate that women are more interrupted than men are, and that men interrupt women significantly more than they do other men. But a lot depends on the precise nature and timing of the interruption.
Different types of interruption have different effects. Deep and ‘intrusive’ interruptions try to change the subject and prevent the other person from speaking. ‘Overlapping interruptions’ involve someone interrupting when another person appears to be coming to the end of making a point. There are even so-called silent interruptions where, for example, someone momentarily forgets the word they were looking for, or pauses to find the right phrase, and their adversary steps in to supply it, but then takes over the conversation.
A recent psychology experiment investigating the effects of different kinds of interruption found, surprisingly, that an audience evaluated so-called ‘disagreement’ interruptions (perhaps the kind that were most on display in the first Trump-Biden debate) more positively than ‘change-subject’ interruptions.
One possible explanation for this finding, according to the study’s authors, is that ‘disagreement’ interruptions at least suggested a strong engagement with the issue, and did not necessarily imply the same disregard for the speaker being interrupted as ‘change-subject’ interjections did. In other words, there appear to be ways of interrupting that seem justified. But as a debating tactic where the aim is to defeat an opponent rhetorically, interrupting has some powerful hidden psychology behind it. For example, if you know that your opponent tends to interrupt and is constantly looking for an opportunity to take the floor from you, then you might speak faster than you normally would. The fear of providing an opportunity for a ‘silent’ interruption may push you into unfamiliar conversational territory and cause you to stumble or misspeak, resulting in a verbal gaffe that your opponent can exploit.
Moreover, if you are aware that your opponent is interrupting you and gaining more floor time, then you may feel pressured into responding in kind. But if you are less skilled at interrupting, your timing may be poorer and your choice of opportunity may then reflect badly on you. You end up being the one coming across as rude. There is even the tactic of interrupting by saying you agree. This may surprise the other speaker so much that they pause, giving you the opportunity to explain that what you agreed with was not what they were hoping. For them not to allow you the chance to speak when you assert that you agree now makes them look like the one seeking conflict and confrontation.
The real psychological power of interrupting perhaps isn’t even on display in presidential debates, but instead lies in the way that it disrupts the other candidate’s thought patterns. Here lies the real danger: interruptions succeed by stopping you from thinking clearly.
Recent research found that so-called ‘sub-clinical’ psychopaths, tended to detect who interrupted them more, and as a result, appeared to become less interested in a potentially exploitative future relationship. In other words, if you interrupt a psychopath more than they are used to while they are trying to make a point, they notice this quickly and infer that they may be less able to manipulate or use you, and move on to other targets.
So, when Trump interrupted Biden in the two debates, there was a lot more going on beneath the surface than simple rudeness.
The writer is a London-based psychiatrist. ©Project Syndicate.