“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.
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.
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