Often people hide their opinions when they are minority and controversial for fear of being rejected by others or receiving some kind of punishment for doing so. This phenomenon was described by Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, who called it a “spiral of silence”.

In this article we will describe what is the spiral of silence and what are the causes of this type of social pressure. We will also make a brief description of some of the most frequent criticisms of Noelle-Neumann’s theory.

What is the spiral of silence?

The German political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann proposed in her book The spiral of silence. Public opinion: our social skin the concept of “spiral of silence”, which is used to describe the tendency that we show people not to publicly expose our opinions when we are aware that these are not the majority.

According to this author, for a majority opinion to be able to promote a spiral of silence must contain an ethical component . Thus, there would hardly be any social pressure of this kind on whether or not pineapple is an acceptable ingredient for pizza, although there would be on the morality of abortion or the death penalty.

The theory of the spiral of silence is based on a series of related hypotheses.

  • Most people fear social isolation.
  • Consequently, we observe the behavior of others to identify which opinions and behaviors are socially acceptable.
  • Isolation or social rejection of unpopular opinions is manifested in gestures such as turning your face or keeping silent.
  • People often hide their views when they expect to receive such responses.
  • Those who hold majority opinions express them publicly without fear.
  • The spiral of silence is triggered by the repeated expression of the majority opinion and the concealment of the minority ones.
  • This process happens around controversial issues, not when there is consensus.
  • The number of people defending an opinion is not always relevant.
  • The concealment of divergent opinions usually has an unconscious character.
  • Public opinion exercises a role of social control in a given time and space and can vary according to these dimensions.
  • The spiral of silence resolves conflicts by favouring one of the opinions that exist in this respect, fulfilling an integration role.

Causes of this phenomenon

Noelle-Neumann stated that the spiral of silence is mainly due to two types of fear: the fear we feel of becoming socially isolated and the fear of even more significant consequences. The intensity of these fears can vary due to different factors, which influences the degree of resistance to showing a divergent opinion.

In the first case, people are often afraid of being rejected by others in response to the expression of unpopular views. This could be the case of an economics student who sympathizes with communism and avoids expressing it before his professors and classmates, who are mostly of a neoliberal tendency.

However, sometimes giving our opinion can involve even greater risks than diminishing acceptance by our environment; for example, a person who opposes the methods or objectives of his or her superiors in front of his or her co-workers is in danger of being fired.

The spiral of silence is generated when the person who has a divergent opinion listens to others fervently defending the majority point of view, and is reinforced again each time this happens again. Thus, we feel less free to express a minority opinion the more popular the dominant one is.

Mass media are a fundamental tool in the development of spirals of silence. This is due not only to the fact that they collect majority points of view, but also that they influence a large number of people; and since they can generate majority opinions, they also create the corresponding spirals of silence.

Noelle-Neumann’s approaches imply that people have an intuitive capacity to identify what the dominant opinion is on a given issue. It is important to note that the accuracy of these personal assumptions may vary depending on the individual and the specific situation.

Criticisms of this theory

Criticisms have been made of different aspects of the theory of the spiral of silence that call into question its theoretical validity and explanatory capacity. In any case, and in spite of its defects, the concept proposed by Noelle-Neumann is useful to conceptualize some aspects of reality.

In this sense the concept of the “noisy minority” is very relevant, which can be as influential as a majority . The spiral of silence, therefore, is not immutable nor does it affect all persons or groups equally; likewise, a minority opinion can become a majority, even in a short period of time.

On the other hand the rise of the Internet has led to a decrease in the weight of the mass media in public opinion. The networks greatly facilitate the dissemination of minority opinions, as well as data (real or false) that support them and question the views defended by the status quo.

Bibliographic references:

  • Noelle-Neumann, E. (1984). The Spiral of Silence: Public Opinion – Our social skin. Chicago: University of Chicago.
  • Noelle-Neumann, E. (1991). The theory of public opinion: The concept of the Spiral of Silence. In J. A. Anderson (Ed.), Communication Yearbook 14, 256-287. Newbury Park, California: Sage.