Imagine yourself at a dinner party, sitting at the table chatting about a recent Netflix binge, the hot weather, or the latest cell phone technology. Then, the discussion shifts to a controversial political topic. Do you withdraw, or express your beliefs?
It depends. If you think your political beliefs match others, you are likely to engage. If not, abstention is probable, graciously excusing yourself, or perhaps staying but politely nodding and smiling.
Let’s consider how these social incentives can impact public opinion.
Spiral of Silence
During my first year as an assistant professor, I had the opportunity to attend a conference at Gallup, Inc., the well-known public opinion firm. Noted German opinion scholar, Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, presented her theory called, The Spiral of Silence.
Noelle-Neumann considered public opinion a sociological phenomenon having the capacity to powerfully influence behavior and attitudes. She in fact referred to public opinion as our social skin.
Noelle-Neumann asserted that people fear social isolation and exclusion. This prompts them to carefully monitor others for signs of approval or disapproval. Individuals thus constantly scour their social environments and gauge the climate of opinion.
People will refrain from expressing their views on controversial matters when they believe doing so would attract criticism, laughter, blame or other signs of social censure. On the other hand, those that perceive their opinions meet social approval will voice them confidently.
This produces a spiraling dynamic. The dominant group gathers momentum, becoming more vocal and appearing stronger than it may actually be. This further erodes expressions of rival opinions. Eventually, the number of challenges spiral down and the only people expressing opinions are those in agreement with the perceived majority.
Recent public opinion application
In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, Pew Center Research probed people’s willingness to engage in political conversations:
“When you have different political views than friends and family, it is generally better to _____________________ ?”
- talk about these differences, in order to find common ground
- avoid talking about political differences because it usually makes things worse
If Noelle-Neumann is correct, people who hold political views supported by the majority should be more willing to talk whereas those having minority opinions would rather avoid conversations.
For Democrats and Republicans living in counties where their preferred political party dominates, they were much more likely to express a willingness to converse about political differences than partisans living in counties controlled by the opposition party.
For example, in those counties where Republicans were the dominant party, 62% of Republicans expressed more willingness to address political differences in conversation than Republicans living in counties led by Democrats. Only 40% of Republicans living in Democratic governed counties felt comfortable talking about political differences. Fifty-five percent wanted to avoid talking, thinking it made things worse.
|Majority Republican County||Minority Republican County|
|Talk about political differences||62%||40|
|Avoid talking about political differences||37||55|
Similarly, nearly 6 in 10 Democrats living in majority Democratic counties felt it was better to talk about political differences. Yet 61% of Democrats living in Republican majority counties wanted to avoid discussions.
|Majority Democrat County||Minority Democrat County|
|Talk about political differences||59%||39|
|Avoid talking about political differences||40||61|
The data show the power of majority opinion. Recognizing the prospects of political support, minority partisans avoid discussion while majority partisan’s welcome it. Buoyed by superior numbers, the majority reaches out to discuss differences and find common ground.
That gesture is more difficult for minority party members. They anticipate criticism and ridicule. Public debate makes things worse. It’s wise to avoid the potential conflict.
Many scholars question Noelle-Neumann’s primary assumption that people fear social isolation. Perhaps its overstated. We can recount experiences that contradict the assumption. However, candid reflection also brings to mind experiences that support Noelle-Neumann. Many of us are in fact excellent at sensing differences with majority opinion.
We seem to know instinctively which way the wind blows.
Ultimately, the Spiral of Silence highlights why democracies may possess a surprisingly narrow range of acceptable ideas. Living in political environments dominated by one perspective, the price of declaring an opposing view can be costly. People watch and learn. If the majority reacts poorly and isolates dissenters, very few will be willing to speak out. Public opinion becomes a form of social control – a means to crush dissent and consolidate majority support. The spiral leads to an uncontested opinion climate, strong in appearance but lacking the diversity of ideas that democracies need to prosper.
Let’s go back to the dinner party.
Your social antenna says a polite withdrawal from the conversation is the prudent move. After all, why challenge dominant opinion – ruin dinner in a house full of guests and generally good spirits.
The dinner party has now lost its appeal. It’s just a group of like-minded people reinforcing each other’s beliefs about the political world. That’s not much fun – unless, of course, you are in the majority.
A final question: What if the party included all types and encouraged everyone to express their views? Even on controversial issues, people felt free to speak. No majority crackdown, no judgment, no social isolation. A memorable dinner party, right?
Yeah, I know, very unlikely especially in today’s intense partisan environment.
 While perception of majority views may or may not be accurate, they nevertheless can alter our own opinions and behaviors, so we at least appear to fit in and share the dominant opinion.