The Dinner Party

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.[1] 

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 _____________________ ?” 

  1. talk about these differences, in order to find common ground 
  2.  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.         

Among Republicans 

Majority Republican CountyMinority Republican County
Talk about political differences62%40
Avoid talking about political differences3755

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. 

Among Democrats 

Majority Democrat CountyMinority Democrat County
Talk about political differences59%39
Avoid talking about political differences4061

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.       

Implications

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.       


[1] 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. 

5 thoughts on “The Dinner Party

  1. your described environment of abstention from disagreement fosters a perceived stronger majority voice then actually exists. Many people that may abstain, will actually create somewhat fictitious agreements with those portions of a majority statement that are socially acceptable or may garner them a better ranking among the dinner party guests. It is often important in social settings to “get along”, even at the cost of ones own “public” position.

    Your blog is spot on reasoning for needed anonymity of polling and voting. It would be interesting to see at deep dive in to voting block, public vs private, answers to various topics.

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    1. Absolutely. Abstention can create a sense that majority opinion is stronger than it actually is. In fact, in certain cases, the minority opinion is the “loudest” and the true majority remains silent. In addition, I agree that strategic incentives (social or otherwise) prevent many from expressing their views – people would rather appear to be in agreement, fostering a sense of friendship and alliance to maintain or gain some sort of benefit. That is still consistent with the assertion that people want to avoid social isolation. Finally, yes, a deep dive into pubic v. private answers is important and indeed revealing. One well know problem in political science is “response errors” associated with voting behavior. Many people “misreport” their voting habits – saying they voted when in fact they did not. Or, after an election, saying they voted for the winning candidate when they actually voted for the losing candidate. There are other examples, across all sorts of social and political behavior. Yes, good topic for a future blog. Thanks!

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  2. Great article and goes a long way in explaining how wrong the polls have been on Pres. Trump. There is another motivation for people to not engage with those holding the opposite opinion at a dinner party….That the other people are unpersuaded by logic and facts and are wedded to a position nailed down by emotion. Rule one in sales is that people buy for emotional reasons and justify it with logic. If someone holds strongly to a left or right leaning stance, it is very rare that bombarding them with facts and logic with change them. The “smart” person who has a command of facts and a measured, logical approach finds it a waste of time to bounce them off the Teflon of ill-founded emotion, which is typically grounded in fear. Unfortunately the media is only an ad-selling machine – driven almost exclusively by an interest in increasing ratings and fear (of socialism, other races, racists, etc.etc.) is what sells for all the networks, reinforcing an increasingly impenetrable cloak of fear-based emotion among the public that is increasingly Impervious to logic and facts as obviously there are lies, damned lies, and statistics that are tailored or fabricated to serve any view you want to promote.

    Unfortunately, there are so many news stations that cater so strongly to one philosophy or another that people now just choose one and are constantly reinforced in their predisposed beliefs. Few look for alternative views and want to truly consider all aspects of an issue.

    Fun article Mark!

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    1. Hey Dave, thanks for insight and comments. Yes, to many people are dug in, unwilling to listen or be persuaded. And, that disposition is driven by emotion. The phenomenon you refer to has been around forever — motivated reasoning, which now dominates our politics. Facts matter little when people wish to protect their political predispositions — people are searching for facts that reinforce what they believe, not facts that challenge their beliefs. So, I agree, it can be a waste of time trying to convince someone.

      Also, I agree the media share responsibility for many of our problems. They often feed the partisan reasoning, elevating Ad revenue over citizen education, political content over responsible journalism. You in fact anticipated my thinking, as I just posted a short piece on the fragmentation of the media. “Must see graph: You are what you watch” https://considerthepolitics.com/2020/09/02/must-see-graph-you-are-what-you-watch/

      Finally, few do seek alternative perspectives or exhibit a proper ambivalence. The political world is increasingly complex and one should be of two minds about many things. Its OK to be open, and it is smart to say I am in the middle – I need to consider the politics more deeply. But that is not popular today and certainly not something one would find on TV, Radio or social media. But, being open to alternatives, seeing the world how others may see it, certainly does make for a more engaging and interesting dinner party. 🙂

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  3. Thanks! I’ll check out the graph and I really think there is a business opportunity for a centrist news outlet….I wish I had the time and money to do it myself!

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