Our desire to fit in with others means we don’t always say what we think. We only express opinions that seem safe. Here’s how the spiral of silence works and how we can discover what people really think.
Be honest: How often do you feel as if you’re really able to express your true opinions without fearing judgment? How often do you bite your tongue because you know you hold an unpopular view? How often do you avoid voicing any opinion at all for fear of having misjudged the situation?
Even in societies with robust free speech protections, most people don’t often say what they think. Instead they take pains to weigh up the situation and adjust their views accordingly. This comes down to the “spiral of silence,” a human communication theory developed by German researcher Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann in the 1960s and ’70s. The theory explains how societies form collective opinions and how we make decisions surrounding loaded topics.
Let’s take a look at how the spiral of silence works and how understanding it can give us a more realistic picture of the world.
How the spiral of silence works
According to Noelle-Neumann’s theory, our willingness to express an opinion is a direct result of how popular or unpopular we perceive it to be. If we think an opinion is unpopular, we will avoid expressing it. If we think it is popular, we will make a point of showing we think the same as others.
Controversy is also a factor—we may be willing to express an unpopular uncontroversial opinion but not an unpopular controversial one. We perform a complex dance whenever we share views on anything morally loaded.
Our perception of how “safe” it is to voice a particular view comes from the clues we pick up, consciously or not, about what everyone else believes. We make an internal calculation based on signs like what the mainstream media reports, what we overhear coworkers discussing on coffee breaks, what our high school friends post on Facebook, or prior responses to things we’ve said.
We also weigh up the particular context, based on factors like how anonymous we feel or whether our statements might be recorded.
As social animals, we have good reason to be aware of whether voicing an opinion might be a bad idea. Cohesive groups tend to have similar views. Anyone who expresses an unpopular opinion risks social exclusion or even ostracism within a particular context or in general. This may be because there are concrete consequences, such as losing a job or even legal penalties. Or there may be less official social consequences, like people being less friendly or willing to associate with you. Those with unpopular views may suppress them to avoid social isolation.
Avoiding social isolation is an important instinct. From an evolutionary biology perspective, remaining part of a group is important for survival, hence the need to at least appear to share the same views as anyone else. The only time someone will feel safe to voice a divergent opinion is if they think the group will share it or be accepting of divergence, or if they view the consequences of rejection as low. But biology doesn’t just dictate how individuals behave—it ends up shaping communities. It’s almost impossible for us to step outside of that need for acceptance.
A feedback loop pushes minority opinions towards less and less visibility—hence why Noelle-Neumann used the word “spiral.” Each time someone voices a majority opinion, they reinforce the sense that it is safe to do so. Each time someone receives a negative response for voicing a minority opinion, it signals to anyone sharing their view to avoid expressing it.
An example of the spiral of silence
A 2014 Pew Research survey of 1,801 American adults examined the prevalence of the spiral of silence on social media. Researchers asked people about their opinions on one public issue: Edward Snowden’s 2013 revelations of US government surveillance of citizens’ phones and emails. They selected this issue because, while controversial, prior surveys suggested a roughly even split in public opinion surrounding whether the leaks were justified and whether such surveillance was reasonable.
Asking respondents about their willingness to share their opinions in different contexts highlighted how the spiral of silence plays out. 86% of respondents were willing to discuss the issue in person, but only about half as many were willing to post about it on social media. Of the 14% who would not consider discussing the Snowden leaks in person, almost none (0.3%) were willing to turn to social media instead.
Both in person and online, respondents reported far greater willingness to share their views with people they knew agreed with them—three times as likely in the workplace and twice as likely in a Facebook discussion.
The implications of the spiral of silence
The end result of the spiral of silence is a point where no one publicly voices a minority opinion, regardless of how many people believe it. The first implication of this is that the picture we have of what most people believe is not always accurate. Many people nurse opinions they would never articulate to their friends, coworkers, families, or social media followings.
A second implication is that the possibility of discord makes us less likely to voice an opinion at all, assuming we are not trying to drum up conflict. In the aforementioned Pew survey, people were more comfortable discussing a controversial story in person than online. An opinion voiced online has a much larger potential audience than one voiced face to face, and it’s harder to know exactly who will see it. Both of these factors increase the risk of someone disagreeing.
If we want to gauge what people think about something, we need to remove the possibility of negative consequences. For example, imagine a manager who often sets overly tight deadlines, causing immense stress to their team. Everyone knows this is a problem and discusses it among themselves, recognizing that more realistic deadlines would be motivating, and unrealistic ones are just demoralizing. However, no one wants to say anything because they’ve heard the manager say that people who can’t handle pressure don’t belong in that job. If the manager asks for feedback about their leadership style, they’re not going to hear what they need to hear if they know who it comes from.
A third implication is that what seems like a sudden change in mainstream opinions can in fact be the result of a shift in what is acceptable to voice, not in what people actually think. A prominent public figure getting away with saying something controversial may make others feel safe to do the same. A change in legislation may make people comfortable saying what they already thought.
For instance, if recreational marijuana use is legalized where someone lives, they might freely remark to a coworker that they consume it and consider it harmless. Even if that was true before the legislation change, saying so would have been too fraught, so they might have lied or avoided the topic. The result is that mainstream opinions can appear to change a great deal in a short time.
A fourth implication is that highly vocal holders of a minority opinion can end up having a disproportionate influence on public discourse. This is especially true if that minority is within a group that already has a lot of power.
While this was less the case during Noelle-Neumann’s time, the internet makes it possible for a vocal minority to make their opinions seem far more prevalent than they actually are—and therefore more acceptable. Indeed, the most extreme views on any spectrum can end up seeming most normal online because people with a moderate take have less of an incentive to make themselves heard.
In anonymous environments, the spiral of silence can end up reversing itself, making the most fringe views the loudest.