Spiral of Silence

Conceptualizing Noelle-Neumann’s Spiral of Silence

Noelle-Neumann’s (1984) work on the spiral of silence is among the best-known and most highly developed theories of the public opinion process.

The spiral of silence model assumes that people are constantly aware of the opinions of people around them and adjust their behaviors (and potentially their opinions) to majority trends under the fear of being on the losing side of a public debate.

Interestingly, Noelle-Neuman based her theorizing on the premise that individuals have a quasi-statistical sense that allows them to gauge the opinion climate in a society, i.e., the proportions of people who favor or oppose a given issue.

This quasi-statistical sense may be accurate, but very often it is not, i.e., people are wrong in their assessments of what everyone else thinks. This point is largely irrelevant for the spiral of silence theory, however, since it is perception of opinion distributions rather than the real opinion climate that shapes people’s willingness to express their opinions in public (Scheufele & Moy, 2000).

In addition to the quasi-statistical sense, Noelle-Neumann’s theory Opens in new window introduces a second key concept: fear of isolation. This concept is based on the assumption that social collectives threaten individuals who deviate from social norms and majority views with isolation or even ostracism. As a result, individuals are constantly fearful of isolating themselves with unpopular views or behavior that violates social norms.

In essence, the spiral of silence theory implies that people have a “quasi-statistical sense” that they continually employ in scanning their social environments for clues related to majority and minority opinion on issues to determine whether or not to speak up or remain silent.

Based on these assumptions, the spiral of silence predicts that groups who see themselves in a minority or as losing ground are less vocal and less willing to express their opinions in public. This, in turn, will influence the visibility of majority and minority groups, and the minority group will appear weaker and weaker over time, simply because its members will be more and more reluctant to express their opinions in public.

Ultimately, the reluctance of members of the perceived minority to express their opinions will establish the majority opinion as the predominant view, or even as a social norm.

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Antecedents of Noelle-Neumann’s Spiral of Silence

Noelle-Neumann’s (1984) theorizing emerges from two broad theoretical traditions. The first theoretical tradition that the spiral of silence theory evolved from are the works of philosophers, such as Locke or Montaigne, whose writings had dealt extensively with the effects of public opinion and public ostracism.

The second theoretical foundation of the spiral of silence theory is social-psychological, particularly theories about conformity to majority pressures (Asch, 1955, 1965) and the influence of group norms on judgments and attitudes (Sheriff, 19767).

The Spiral of Silence as a Dynamic Process

Based in character, the spiral of silence is dynamic, macrosocial process. As such, it is a process that works over time. As people who perceive themselves to be in the minority fall silent, perceptions of opinion climates shift over time, and ultimately the majority opinion is established as the predominant one or even as a social norm. The Figure underneath illustrates this spiraling process over time.

Figure showing the dynamic process of spiral of silence
Figure: The spiral of silence as a dynamic, macrosocial process.

People’s willingness to publicly express their views depends heavily on their perceptions of which viewpoints are represented by a majority of citizens or which viewpoints are gaining ground.

As people with minority viewpoints fall silent over time, perceptions of the majority opinion gaining ground increase. This creates a mutually reinforcing spiral where the reluctance of the majority group to speak out leads to perceptual biases in favor of the majority group, which in turn, further discourages the minority group from speaking out.

There are two contingent conditions for this spiraling process to take place. As mentioned earlier, the first one is caused by the fear of isolation. The spiral of silence is not just a matter of wanting to be on the winning side but is an attempt to avoid being isolated from one’s social group.

Threats of criticism from others were found to be powerful forces in silencing individuals. For example, smokers who are repeatedly criticized for advocating smokers’ rights were found to remain silent rather than state their views on this subject in the presence of vocal nonsmokers.

In some cases the threat of expressing an opinion is extreme, as Noelle-Neumann notes:

“Slashed tire, defaced or torn posters, help refused to a lost stranger … demonstrate that people can be on uncomfortable or even dangerous ground when the climate of opinion runs counter to their views. When people attempts to avoid isolation, they are not responding hypersensitively to trivialities; these are existential issues that can involve real hazards.”

There are, of course, exceptions to the issue of isolation. There are groups and individuals who do not fear isolation and who will express their opinions no matter what the consequences—a characteristic of innovators, change agents, and the avant-garde.

The second factor that can play an important role in the process of the spiral of silence are the news media. Based on Noelle-Neumann’s early theorizing, the quasi-statistical sense that people use to gauge opinion climates depends at least to some degree on media portrayals of the issue.

In particular, people rely on two sources when making assessments of what everyone else around them thinks. The first source is their immediate social environment. In fact, evidence suggests that people project from recent discussions in their immediate social circles when making assessment about the larger opinion climates surrounding them (Scheufele, Shanahan, & Lee, 2001).

The second source is the news media. When polled, individuals usually state that they feel powerless in the face of media. Two kinds of experience accentuate this feeling of helplessness. The first is the difficulty of getting publicity for a cause or point of view. The second is being scapegoated by the media in what Noelle-Neumann calls the pillory function of media. In each case the individual feels powerless against the media, making the media an important part of the spiral of silence.

The media, then, publicize which opinions are prevalent and which are not. As a result, individuals often cannot tell where their opinions come from. They confuse what is learned through the media with what is learned through interpersonal channels. This tendency is especially true for television, with which so many people have a personal relationship:

The longer one has studied the question, the clearer it becomes that fathoming the effects of the mass media is very hard. These effects do not come into being as a result of a single stimulus; they are as a rule cumulative, following the principle that “water dripping constantly wears away stone.” Further discussions among people spread the media’s messages further, and before long no difference can be perceived between the point of media reception and points far removed from it. The media’s effects are predominantly unconscious; people cannot provide an account of what has happened. Rather, they mix their own direct perceptions and the perceptions filtered through the eyes of the media into an indivisible whole that seems to drive from their own thoughts and experiences.

Media effects on public opinion, then, are cumulative and not always apparent. It sometimes happens that journalists’ opinions differ from those of the general public, so that media depictions contradict the prevailing expressions of individuals.

When this occurs, a dual climate of opinion results. Here, two versions of reality operate—that of the media and that of the public. Noelle-Neumann likens this event to an unusual weather situation—interesting and seemingly bizarre.

In the 2004 presidential election in the United States, for example, the incumbent George W. Bush was strongly supported by public opinion, yet many believed that the media projected a bias against the president.

The spiral of silence, then, is a phenomenon involving personal and media channels of communication. The media publicize public opinion, making evident which opinions predominate. Individuals express their opinions or not, depending on dominant points of view; the media, in turn, attend to the expressed opinion, and the spiral continues.

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