Spiral of Silence

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Why minority opinions are not expressed in public. Media influence on public opinion. Explanation of the Spiral of Silence of Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann. ('74)

Spiral of Silence (Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann)What is the Spiral of Silence? Description

The Spiral of Silence method from Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann is a model which explains why people are unwilling to express their opinions in public when they believe that they are in the minority. The spiral of silence model describes the increasing pressure which people are noticing to conceal their views, when they think that they are in the minority. The framework is based on three assumptions:

  1. People have a "quasi-statistical organ", a sixth-sense, which allows them to know the prevailing public opinion. Even without access to polls.
  2. People have a fear of isolation and know what behaviors will increase the likelihood of being socially isolated.
  3. People are reticent to express their minority views. Primarily out of fear of being isolated.

In her 1984 book, Noelle-Neumann examines public opinion as a form of social control. Individuals almost instinctively notice the opinions of those around them. They shape their behavior to prevailing attitudes about what is acceptable.

The closer a person believes the opinion held is similar to the prevailing public opinion, the more he is willing to openly disclose that opinion in public. Then, if public sentiment changes, the person will recognize that the opinion is less in favor. Now he will be less willing to express that opinion publicly. If the perceived distance between public opinion and a person's personal opinion grows, that person will be less likely to want to express his opinion.

Origin of the Spiral of Silence. History

Conducted survey research about growth and spread of public opinion.

Usage of the spiral of silence. Applications

  • Research on the effect of massmedia.
  • Sensory input and how people detect changes in public opinion.
  • Statistical polling.
  • Public opinion research.

Steps in the Spiral of Silence. Process

Noelle-Neumann recommends two questions to sample the barometric readings inside the heads of people:

  1. Regardless of your personal opinion, do you think most people...? → Present climate.
  2. Will more people or less people think this way a year from now? → Future forecast.

Strengths of the Spiral of Silence. Benefits

  • Defines why people are not willing to express their opinion if they are in the minority.
  • Explains why people prefer to withhold their true feelings. Rather than take the risk of being isolated.
  • Is a good model in relating media effects to public opinion.
  • Processes of public opinion hold the society together. Spirals of silence solve conflicts that can threat the society, if they remain unsolved.

Limitations of the Spiral of Silence. Disadvantages

  • The rare phenomenon of a ‘double climate of opinion’ can be observed, when the opinions provided by the mass media are not consistent with the opinions prevalent among most people outside the mass media
  • Are we really good at assessing public opinion?
  • Are we really good at assessing if we are in the majority or minority? Pluralistic ignorance may hinder this. I.e. the mistaken assumption of people that everyone thinks similar like they do.
  • How can we determine whether someone truly believes that he is in the majority or not?
  • Theory does not do justice to the pervasive impact of committed deviants on public opinion.

Book: Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann (1984) - The Spiral of Silence: Public Opinion - Our social skin -

Book: Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann (1991) - The theory of public opinion: The concept of the Spiral of Silence -

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Compare with Spiral of Silence: Groupthink  |  Core Group Theory  |  Six Thinking Hats  |  Delphi Method  |  Metaplan  |  Framing  |  Levels of Culture  |  Changing Organization Cultures  |  Brainstorming  |  Spiral Dynamics

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