Spiral of Silence.

“More frightened of isolation than of committing an error, they joined the masses even though they did not agree with them.” -Tocqueville.

According to Hannah Arendt, plurality is one of the fundamental aspects of the human condition. The unavoidable fact is that each man and woman is unique, different from everyone else in some critical respect, yet we cannot exist in solitude. We must live in close cooperation and contrast with one another. That need for society generated two age-old questions from the ancient Greeks. How shall we live? And, who should lead us? Unfortunately, people are messy and imperfect, not governed by simple laws like gravity. The group or plurality formed and possessed an opinion to answer those two fundamental questions.

In 1974, Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann offered “the spiral of silence” as a way to understand the growth and spread of public opinion. For any morally loaded topics that are intensely controversial, Noelle-Neumann defined public opinion as “attitudes one can express without running the danger of isolating oneself.” The term spiral of silence refers to the increasing pressure people feel to conceal their views when they think they are in the minority. Today, the term political correctness fits the same bill. Noelle-Neumann believed that television accelerates the spiral, but to grasp the role of the mass media in the process, we first must understand people’s extraordinary sensitivity to the ever-changing standard of what society will tolerate.

As social animals, we have good reason to know whether voicing an opinion might be a bad idea. Tight groups tend to have similar views. Anyone who expresses an unpopular opinion risks social exclusion or ostracism from the group. Controversy is also a factor—we may be willing to express an uncontroversial opinion but not unpopular. We perform a complex dance when we share views on anything morally loaded. The language of the unpopular becomes too hot to handle. 

Using morally loaded language or expressing unpopular opinions may result in 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 a necessary instinct. From an evolutionary biology perspective, remaining part of a group is essential 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 dictate how individuals behave—it shapes 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.” Whenever 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. 

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. Complex and twisted conformity ensues.

Conformity might have laid claim to more real estate in your head than you realize. What if I told you that some of your opinions were born elsewhere? In a recent study., researchers found opinion polls directly influence individual-level support for policies, can be self-fulfilling prophecies, and produce opinion cascades. That conformity pressures can suppress minority opinion might seem disheartening for those who value highly normative conceptions of democracy. Psychologists have long observed that people conform to the majority opinion, sometimes referred to as the ‘bandwagon effect.”  

The bandwagon effect refers to people’s tendency to adopt a particular behavior, style, or attitude simply because everyone else is doing it. The more people assume a specific trend, the more likely it becomes that other people will also hop on the bandwagon. 

Conformity effects have substantial implications for political attitudes and discourse more generally. The combination of the spiral of silence and pluralistic ignorance dictates the reluctance to express one’s unadulterated views will spread to others and contribute to misperceptions of public opinion. The perception of unanimity or homogeneity of others amplifies social influence. More troublingly, an increased appearance of consensus will result in a growing intolerance for dissenting opinions. Thus further increasing overt social pressure toward attitudinal homogeneity. Furthermore, when people conform without debate, everyone is exposed to a truncated set of arguments. The absence of verbal dissent can lead to increased persuasion of bystanders simply because only one side of the issue is articulated.

Here are a few areas of life where the bandwagon effect directly impacts your material well-being. 

  • Political choices: voters sometimes provide increased support for a particular political party simply because that party is doing well in recent polls, the rally-around-the-winner or follow-the-winner effect.
  • Consumers’ decisions: people often buy the same type of clothes that others they know are wearing because they want to show that they’re following the latest fashion trends.
  • Doctors’ medical decisions: many medical procedures have been widely practiced for long stretches of history, despite a lack of sufficient supporting evidence for their efficacy, because they were considered popular by the medical community. The COVID-19 vaccines rushed into service lacked the tried and proper deep clinical trials requiring years. 
  • Mental health counseling & relationship advice: psychologists built their treatment modalities based on “wafer thin” research conducted on small batches of the populace. Those psychological theories become cornerstones of practice avoiding the heat of debate as peer groups circle the wagons defensively. 

What are the additional implications of the spiral of silence? 

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 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. According to the 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 expressed face to face, and it’s harder to know who will see it. Both of these factors increase the risk of someone disagreeing.

A third implication is that what seems like a sudden change in mainstream opinions can result from a shift in what is acceptable to voice, not in what people think. A prominent public figure getting away with saying something controversial may make others feel safe to do the same. 

A fourth implication is that highly vocal holders of a minority opinion can end up having a disproportionate influence on public discourse. This notion can be especially true if that minority is within a group that already has a lot of power. 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. 

To cut this distortion, I have developed a process (graphic below) under my brand Thinking4Tomorrow. Let’s use losing weight and getting into shape as our target goal. Notice below that starting at awareness, you are listening, watching, studying, and learning while asking why. You begin to research the predominant approaches to getting into shape—cardio, weights, diet, and combinations of the three. Hundreds of self-help books line the bookshelves offering “the answer” to refining your physical form, providing a firehose of information. We need to distill and simplify through trial and error. 

Through research, you learn you must burn more calories and fat than you consume to lose fat. To build muscle, you must provide resistance training and weights. Cardio requires raising your heart rate by biking, fast hiking, or running. Whatever strategy you choose requires daily consistency to achieve results.

In your research phase, you ask great questions and arrive at a plan of action to test reality. Opinions of friends, family, and experts are filtered into your thinking and decision process, but you are testing your reality. Everyone’s body is a little different. What works well for one person might not work for another; this is your reality. You’re the one getting in shape.

You test reality by trial and error, literally mastering the imperfections of reality to arrive at success or failure. You will become an expert on your body. Why? It’s your body in the mirror, not someone else’s.

The cool part comes next. As you see results, success fuels confidence. Confidence shapes your attitudes. Attitudes enrich your awareness. With your newly refined awareness, you can repeatedly tweak your “getting in shape” process. Your passion for the “process of getting results” makes you relevant in your little slice of the world. People will ask you what you are doing to be fit, happy, and vital. And that validation feels good!

Passionate, relevant, and armed with a process for change, you have power over your circumstance. And, trust me when I say power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.

This process works on any facet of your life. Coupling. Career. Raising kids. Or your pastimes and hobbies. I will leave you with a mindset checklist to get your mind cranking.

  1. Making conscious decisions dictate your day—not fears or impulses.
  2. Think at least four steps ahead of big decisions
  3. Happiness is not how many things you get done but how well you do them.
  4. Listen to hear, not to reply. Watch to observe, not intervene.
  5. Remember, you are the only person responsible for your life and happiness.
  6. Life will never get easier; you will get smarter, more passionate, strategic, and persistent. 

This post has been very academic sounding and formal to achieve a certain gravitas in presentation. In more informal terms, the spiral of silence in 1974 is today’s political correctness. The movers and shakers of PC effort to end debate on myriad social issues as if their opinion and voice ended all discussion. We have reached the end of the debate on issues like gravity, the speed of sound, and 1 + 1 =2. However, the arguments persist on the more pressing issues of our day because social failures are many and solutions are few.

I will leave you with this quote to chew on. “To learn who rules over you, simply find out whom you are not allowed to criticize.” –Voltaire

Until next time. Stay safe.

Published by Robert Q Watson

During my first six decades on this earth, I lived life at great heights often on the razor’s edge. Consequently, I have enjoyed incredible successes and endured mind-numbing failures. Truthfully, I have had a hell of a view.

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