The spiral of silence: Why are we afraid to express our opinions?
How often do you feel that you can freely share your true ideas? How often do you bury sentences inside because you know you hold an unpopular opinion? How often do you refrain from voicing any opinion out of fear of misjudgement of the situation?
Even in societies with a well-founded freedom of expression, most people often fail to speak their minds, instead taking care to weigh the situation and adjust their views accordingly. This state of our auto-suppression has been the subject of a communication theory and was put forward by researcher Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann in the 1970s: The Spiral of Silence. The theory tries to explain how societies form collective ideas and how we make decisions about complex and deep issues.
Let's take a look at how the spiral of silence works and how understanding it can give us a more realistic picture of the world.
According to Noelle-Neumann's theory, our desire to express an idea is related to how "popular" or "unpopular" we perceive the idea to be. If we think an idea is unpopular, we avoid expressing it. If we think it's popular, we're dying to show that we think the same way as others.
Our perception of how “safe” it is to express a particular opinion comes from conscious or unconscious cues we receive about what others believe. We do an internal calculation based on responses to mainstream media news, what our colleagues talk about during coffee breaks, what our high school friends write on Instagram/Twitter/Facebook, or what we've said before. We also continue to make these calculations based on factors such as whether our statements can be recorded.
Being liked and socially accepted is basically a good thing because this “desire for approval” allows us to bond with each other, develop confidence, and collaborate together to achieve things we could never have done on our own. But we also contribute to the creation of unhealthy standards and norms because of this desire for validation. When we try to be “adapted” blindly, we disregard our own selves. A common example of this is when we have friends who all wear “X” shoes, we decide to buy ourselves a pair of shoes from the same “X” brand just to fit in. In this process, we don't buy shoes because we absolutely like them and think they are the best, we buy them to be accepted and approved by our peers. This example of ours is rather naive; Of course, the same mechanism applies to politics, religion, culture, fashion, hobbies and other social norms that make up all other areas of our lives. Everything we do, say, and think is influenced, at least in part, by social pressures.
Of course, we have good reasons to realize whether voicing an opinion is bad. We have lived as groups since primitive times, and groups always tend to hold similar views. Anyone expressing an unpopular opinion risks exclusion in a particular context or in general. In the modern world, if these situations are against the social order, we are faced with legal penalties, dismissal, etc. sanctions arise. When social awkwardness occurs, there may not be many people around who are willing to engage with you. When we have an unpopular opinion, we can suppress our thoughts to avoid that social isolation.
Avoiding social isolation is a basic instinct for all of us. From an evolutionary biology perspective, being part of a group is essential for survival, so we need to at least appear to share the same views as everyone else. The only times someone will feel safe to express a different opinion is when they think the group will either share that view or accept their difference, or underestimate the result of rejection. But evolutionary biology doesn't just dictate our individual behavior. These behaviors integrate and eventually become the rules that shape communities. This is exactly why it is almost impossible for us to go beyond the need for acceptance. Decades of feedback push the minority views further and further down, and it turns into a cycle. This is why Noelle-Neumann used the word "helical".
Whenever someone expresses a widely accepted view, he receives such overwhelming approval that a feeling is reinforced in us that it is safe to do so. Whenever someone receives a negative response for voicing a minority view, this gives us plenty of pressure to refrain from sharing our views.
The effects of the spiral of silence
The end result of the spiral of silence is that people are not able to publicly voice an opinion that stands out from the usual. When we get to this point, we may first think that the picture we have of what most people believe is not always true. What is certain is that everyone, without exception, has ideas that they can never express to their friends, family, or social media followers. If we want to measure what people really think about something, we need to eliminate the negative reactions they get when they express their opinions about it.
Sometimes what is acceptable to say can be transformed by the free speech of well-known or experts in their fields, which inspires many people and expands the scope of freedom of expression. Sometimes, a legal change in legislation stretches the spectrum of admissibility. In the face of such a change, a subject that cannot be discussed can suddenly be reflected in the mainstream views.
Thanks to the Internet, many minorities who can make their voices heard are also able to make their views much more widespread and therefore more acceptable than they actually are. Indeed, the most extreme views of any spectrum can now appear to be the most normal considerations online. In fact, anonymity-dominated virtual media sometimes reverses acceptability, and the ideas that are supposed to be the most contradictory can turn into the most talked about. As in all cases, there will be many levels in front of us that can develop both for the benefit and the detriment of humanity.
We all know from experience that some people with minority views openly speak up and share their opinions, regardless of the consequences. Researchers have revealed that in these situations, individuals usually decide to voice their opinions when the issue is very important to them, when they care deeply about the issue, when they are sure of their attitudes and that they have real knowledge. When people are led to share under the influence of these factors, they break the spiral of silence. Have you ever shared your true views on a subject even though there are opposing views around you? If you remember that moment, no matter how frightened you were or what scale the repercussions of your post were, you shared it with the belief that you had your own truth in that moment.
Some opinions seem unpopular simply because it has become taboo to talk about. This is exactly where the “spiral of silence” theory comes from; that is, most people actually own an idea, but no one speaks it out loud.
This is why we need healthy opposition in our culture. Because when individuals decide to oppose, they may discover that their views are more popular than they initially thought. This encourages other like-minded people to start expressing themselves as well.
If you personally think you have a less popular opinion and have trouble expressing your opinion on a topic, you can use the results of some research to find your own voice.