The Science

Breaking the spiral of silence

Image of Diana Diez
Diana Diez2020-06-22
Have you ever been in a meeting where just a few people keep talking, while all the others remain silent? This is both excluding many participants and can give a false sense of consensus in the group. Let us take a look at what is happening when the spiral of silence is set in motion and how we can make more voices heard.

“Humans are social beings” is a phrase that sums up our desire to blend in with society. We are happy when we find a sense of belonging, but we are also afraid of being socially isolated from others. To avoid isolation, people constantly monitor their social environment and modify their behaviour accordingly. Observing others and reading social cues helps us in many ways, but it can limit us in some situations. In a group discussion, we quickly recognize which opinions are met with approval and which are ignored or frowned upon. The fear of isolation strongly affects our willingness to express our personal opinions, which can set the spiral of silence in motion. 

What happens when the spiral is set in motion?

  1. People who notice that their opinion has little support hide it.
  2. People who feel endorsed in their opinion continue sharing it with confidence.
  3. Loud opinions on one side and quiet voices on the other trigger the spiral of silence.
  4. Those who represent the supported opinions talk more, while others remain silent.
  5. The loudest opinion is perceived as the majority.
  6. The spiral process goes on until one opinion prevails.

Going against the tide is not easy - and if the majority agrees upon something, maybe it is just the best option? However, it is not always the actual majority opinion that gets the most support but rather the opinion that people perceive as the majority. This means that if a minority opinion has assertive and vocal supporters, it can still dominate the conversation. People may believe that a loud opinion is a majority and therefore refrain from taking part in a discussion. Even a single assertive participant can prevent others from contributing.

The spiral of silence theory was created in 1974 by Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, professor of communication research at the University of Mainz in Germany. Her findings form the basis for the spiral. Those in favour of the majority opinion are more likely to speak out, while the minority remains silent. People tend to speak to those who already share their opinions rather than discussing with those who disagree. Some groups find it easier to speak out; males, young adults and people of the middle and upper classes. Low self-esteem is reducing the willingness to speak. 

Does it always play out like this? Usually, the perceived majority is simply what most people agree upon. In those cases, people aren’t necessarily silenced because of how the discussion goes. However, going with the majority does not always mean making the best decision, or promoting innovation. The spiral of silence is equally prevalent in collectivist and individualist cultures and seems to be a universal phenomenon. At the same time, it does matter who you share your opinion with. It is more important to maintain social harmony with people who are close to you rather than strangers -  family, friends, neighbours, colleagues.

Where do we see the spiral of silence?

  • In workplace meetings, when the opinion of a few team members dominates a discussion. The supporters may be loud, repeat their arguments, quickly push back notions from others. Other members' responses are (unconsciously) ignored, met with criticism, laughter, frowned upon, etc.
  • In differences between what political views people express and how they actually vote. This is hugely affected by the media and the perceived public opinion. The spiral of silence can partly explain some very surprising voting outcomes - 1992 UK general election (“Shy Tories” and the Conservatives victory), 2016 EU referendum (Brexit) and 2016 US presidential election (Donald Trump vs Hillary Clinton).
  • Social cliques, where the dominant leaders are setting the norms for the group - typical teenage crowds. A classic example from high school movies is Mean Girls, where everyone in the school is afraid to speak up against the popular group “The Plastics”. Btw, the movie has a nice Mentimeter moment when the girls gather to talk about bullying. 
Mean girls gif

How can Mentimeter help to break the spiral of silence?

  • Using Mentimeter for gauging opinion can expose a false majority before it starts dominating a conversation.
  • If a loud opinion already has taken over, but only a few people openly support it - check what the whole group thinks with a Menti.
  • Mentimeter can reduce the fear of isolation. If people vote anonymously, they are more likely to confidently share their opinions.
  • The fear of isolation is particularly strong in groups with close ties. Mentimeter can help people understand each other better and acknowledge different perspectives.

References

Griffin, E. (2008). Spiral of Silence of Elizabeth Noelle-Neumann. A First Look at Communication Theory, 372–382.

Matthes, J., Knoll, J., & von Sikorski, C. (2018). The “Spiral of Silence” Revisited: A Meta-Analysis on the Relationship Between Perceptions of Opinion Support and Political Opinion Expression. Communication Research, 45(1), 3–33. https://doi.org/10.1177/0093650217745429

Noelle-Neumann, E. (1974). The Spiral of Silence: A Theory of Public Opinion. Journal of Communication, 24(3), 43–51. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1460-2466.1974.tb00367.x

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