In her groundbreaking work on the dynamics of public opinion, political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann argued that fear of isolation can create a “spiral of silence,” where only one side of an issue is publicly defended.
The core mechanism she identifies is this. People don’t want to say things that they believe might risk eliciting the disapproval of others; they don’t want to potentially lose friends and get pushed out of their social groups. There is a fear of isolation. So, instead of saying what they really think about a particular issue, such individuals keep mum. Once the process is set in motion, more and more people become silent about their true opinions.
Spirals like these typically occur with regards to contentious, emotionally laden moral and political issues. A spiral of silence can drive even the majority opinion underground if the minority is sufficiently vocal, and especially if mass media repeatedly and concordantly come down on one side of the issue. Eventually, the spiral of silence causes the majority opinion to effectively disappear, while the previously minority opinion becomes the dominant societal assumption.
What does this mean for us, now? Well for one, we shouldn’t assume, for all the reasons explored so far, that such spirals of silence induced by social pressure (real or perceived) are going to line up with the truth all the time (or even most of the time). Spirals of silence are sensitive to social forces, not to the truth. Thus, they can cause society to settle on opinions that are quite misguided. …
The danger we face today is that many of us have quite confident views about lots of contentious issues, as well as lots of issues that have been “settled,” not via a process of institutionalized disconfirmation, but rather through spirals of silence.
Social pressure creates blind spots by making it costly to provide evidence on one side of an issue, while making it costless or even beneficial to provide evidence on the other side of the issue. Whenever such incentives exist, we should suspect that our resulting view of the world is warped in some way.
Which is why this blog exists.