Developed by German survey and communication researcher Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann in the 1960s and 1970s, the spiral of silence theory describes collective opinion formation and societal decision-making in situations where the issue being debated or decided upon is controversial and morally loaded. The theory is one of the most frequently cited and debated to emerge from the field of communication studies during the latter half of the twentieth century.
In the literature in the field, the spiral of silence theory is often reduced to a single premise, i.e., that people who feel their opinion is held by the minority tend to fall silent in public. Although this is a perfectly accurate description of one key aspect of the theory, it is in fact just one element of a far more comprehensive theory of how public opinion functions. This theory rests on the notion that there is such a thing as a “social nature of humans,” which causes people to fear social isolation and thus substantially influences their actions in public. The term “public opinion” then refers to opinions or behavior that can be displayed or expressed in public without running the risk of social isolation or, in some cases, that even must be displayed to avoid the danger of isolation. The term “public” is here interpreted in a social psychological perspective as a state of consciousness in which individuals who are subjected to the gaze of those around them consciously realize that their actions are “seen by all” and “heard by all.” People must therefore constantly monitor the reactions of others in their environment.
Accordingly, Noelle-Neumann views public opinion as a form of social control that ultimately applies to everyone, regardless of social class. She states that this control is apparent in many areas of life, ranging from controversial political issues to fashion, morals, and values. Noelle-Neumann’s understanding of public opinion stands in contrast to another conception that views public opinion as the result of rational debate among an educated elite that is of crucial importance for the state (Holcombe 1923; Bourdieu 1979).
Origins Of The Theory
The theory originated from a surprising empirical research finding from the 1965 German federal election campaign. Over the course of 10 months, from December 1964 to shortly before election day, survey findings on voting intentions remained practically unchanged, with a dead heat between the governing Christian Democratic Party and the opposing Social Democratic Party. In the final few weeks and days prior to the election, however, the situation suddenly changed, with survey findings showing a so-called “last-minute swing” in favor of the Christian Democrats. The election outcome confirmed the final survey findings.
While voting intentions remained unchanged over the course of many months, over the same period of time responses to the following question had shifted dramatically: “Of course, nobody can know for sure, but what do you think: who is going to win the election?” In December 1964, the percentage of respondents who expected the Social Democrats would win the election was about the same as the share who anticipated a Christian Democratic victory. But by July 1965, the Christian Democrats were clearly in the lead; and by August, almost 50 percent anticipated a Christian Democratic victory. The relationship between the two measures – voting intention and expectation of the winner – made the puzzle, which gave rise to the theory of the spiral of silence.
Subsequently, especially during the emotionally charged federal election campaign of 1972, the Allensbach Institute gradually gathered survey data pointing to humans’ fear of isolation, to their tendency to speak out or fall silent in controversial, morally loaded debates. The pattern that had been observed during the 1965 campaign was detected again on other occasions – and thus the spiral of silence theory slowly began to take shape.
Key Elements Of The Theory
People experience fear of isolation. They have a fear – probably developed over the course of evolution – of being rejected by those around them. For this reason, people constantly monitor the behavior of others in their surroundings, attentively noting which opinions and modes of behavior meet with public approval or disapproval. But people do not only observe their environment. They also in part unconsciously issue their own threats of isolation via what they say and do, via behavior such as turning away from someone, knitting their brow, laughing at someone, etc. These are signals that individuals perceive, and that show people which of their opinions meet with their fellow humans’ approval and which do not.
Since most people fear isolation, they tend to refrain from publicly stating their position when they perceive that this would attract enraged objections, laughter, scorn, or similar threats of isolation. Conversely, those who sense that their opinion meets with approval tend to voice their convictions fearlessly, freely, gladly, and at times vociferously. Speaking out loudly and gladly enhances the threat of isolation directed at those who think differently. It reinforces their sense of standing alone with their opinion and thus augments their tendency to conceal their opinion in public. A spiraling process begins, whereby the dominant camp becomes ever louder and more self-confident, while the other camp falls increasingly silent.
This process does not occur at all times and in all situations, but only in connection with issues that have a strong moral component. The process is not set in motion if there is no underlying moral foundation implying that those who think differently are not merely stupid, but bad. This moral element is what gives public opinion power, allowing it to raise the threat of isolation that sets the spiral of silence in motion. Only controversial issues can trigger a spiral of silence. Topics on which there is social consensus – true consensus and not merely outward agreement – give rise to no disagreement and thus leave no room for a spiral of silence. The actual strength of the different camps of opinion does not necessarily determine which view will predominate in public. An opinion can dominate in public and exert the pressure of isolation even if the majority of the population holds the opposing view, yet does not speak out publicly.
The mass media can significantly influence the spiral-of-silence process. If the majority of the media take the same side in a morally charged controversy, they exert a substantial, presumably even decisive influence on the direction that the spiral of silence takes. Thus far, no instances in which a spiral of silence ran contrary to the media tenor have been observed. As a rule, people are not consciously aware of either the fear or threat of isolation. They observe behavior in their environment that is indicative of self-confidence and strength, and react practically instinctively with fear and silence to threats of isolation raised by their surroundings.
Public opinion is limited by time and place. As a rule, a spiral of silence only holds sway over a society for a limited period of time. In this regard, there are both short-lived instances, such as the controversy over the sinking of the Brent Spar oil platform in some European countries in the 1990s, and extremely long-term examples, such as the growing tendency in western societies over the course of the past centuries to attach ever greater importance to the value of equality. In geographical terms, the area in which a certain climate of opinion predominates can be of varying size. There have even been a few cases of globally valid public opinion in recent history, such as the public opinion that isolated South Africa around the world for decades and ultimately forced the apartheid regime to step down from power. Generally, however, the process of public opinion and thus the spiral of silence tend to be limited by national borders or the borders of a particular cultural group. When viewed with hindsight or from an outsider’s perspective, it is hard to comprehend the agitation and emotional fervor that accompany a spiral of silence.
Finally, public opinion serves as an instrument of social control, indirectly insuring social cohesion. Whenever there is especially strong integrative pressure in a society, as found in connection with the spiral of silence, this generally indicates that the issue or controversy that triggered the spiral of silence poses a particularly great threat to social cohesion. In extreme cases, the spiral of silence culminates in a situation where certain topics can either only be broached using a specific vocabulary (political correctness) or cannot be mentioned at all (taboo), lest people wish to be the target of extremely harsh signals of social isolation (Noelle-Neumann 1993).
Critique Of The Theory
The theory of the spiral of silence has always been an object of controversy in communication research since its first publication in the Journal of Communication in 1974. Criticism concentrated on three crucial issues.
First, the theory was said to fail to consider, to a sufficient degree, the part that reference groups play in the formation of the population’s opinions. People tend to orient themselves more strongly to their personal environment than to society or the public at large, so some critics hold (cf. Glynn & McLeod 1985). Second, Noelle-Neumann asserts that people are capable of estimating the distribution of opinions in the population. This capability, critics hold, is at odds with the well-documented phenomenon of “pluralistic ignorance” – the majority errs about who is in the majority – and “looking-glass perception” – most humans tend to believe the majority shares their own opinion (Salmon & Kline 1985). Third, the theory of the spiral of silence is thought by some to possibly explain human behavior in societies that put much emphasis on the collective, but not to apply to individualistic societies such as the United States or many western European countries (Huang 2005). In addition to these three main points, Noelle-Neumann’s thesis that the mass media play a decisive part in the development of the pressure of isolation, which silences those who hold the majority opinion, was criticized mostly in the early years.
Whereas the first critical argument rests on a misunderstanding insofar as NoelleNeumann has never claimed her theory is the sole explanation of public opinion processes, and has never denied the importance of other influences such as reference groups on individuals’ opinion formation, the other two arguments are in need of thorough testing. The theory explicitly holds that the behavior described is to be found in all societies, including decidedly individualistic ones. And the relationship between Noelle-Neumann’s “quasi-statistical sense” (see below) and looking-glass perception is unresolved to this day.
Testing The Theory
On considering the wealth of studies that have attempted to empirically test the spiral of silence theory over the past 20 years, it is obvious that one of the greatest problems with any such endeavor is correctly identifying the type of social situation in which a test of this kind can be completed. This sort of situation cannot be arbitrarily created within the framework of a representative survey. Instead, researchers must wait for an auspicious moment to arise.
One common misapprehension concerns the concept of the “quasi-statistical sense,” a term that Noelle-Neumann used to describe people’s tendency to constantly monitor their environment, thereby assessing which opinions are gaining ground and may be expressed in public, and which views are losing ground and hence subject to the threat of isolation. The concept does not imply that people have a cash-register-like capability to continually estimate and record the percentage of the population that holds one opinion or the other.
Further, a test of the spiral of silence requires an issue with certain prerequisites. The issue must have a strong moral dimension, it must be in the public spotlight, and the public must be divided into different opinion camps. Further, a spiral of silence is particularly likely to come into being in situations where the majority of the mass media clearly side with one of the opinion camps involved in the debate. In addition, the pressure of the climate of opinion that emanates from the issue must be so strong that respondents directly perceive the threat of isolation during the survey interview and do not have to imagine such pressure in a hypothetical situation.
On analyzing the findings, the behavior of respondents whose opinion is actually in the majority or gaining ground must be compared with the behavior of those who are in fact in the minority or whose opinion is under pressure from the climate of opinion. Comparing those who say they believe themselves to be in the majority or in the minority would produce misleading results. According to the theory, the threat of isolation is inseparably entwined with concrete issues and opinions. Whether people rationally believe their opinion is shared by the majority is irrelevant. Supporters of a standpoint that is subject to pressure from the climate of opinion tend to fall silent even if they – like most people – claim during the interview to hold the majority view.
If a suitable social situation for testing the spiral of silence can be identified, that is, a situation that involves a real struggle for public opinion, the following information must be obtained via surveys and media content analyses in order to test the spiral of silence:
- the distribution of opinions on the issue among the population: which view is held by the majority and which by the minority? This information is needed to identify and compare the supporters and opponents of a particular opinion in the analysis phase of the investigation.
- the climate of opinion; in other words, a question measuring the population’s general feeling as to which opinion is getting stronger and which opinion is losing ground. This can be ascertained by means of questions such as “How do you think most people feel about this?” With this question one can pinpoint those issues that entail pressure from the climate of opinion. Whenever the percentage of respondents who believe that most people hold a particular opinion is considerably greater than the share who actually take this stance themselves, this is a sure sign that we are dealing with an issue that could ultimately trigger a spiral of silence.
- willingness to advocate a certain position or speak out in public. This can, for example, be measured via the “train test,” which has in the meantime become a classic question in spiral of silence research: “Suppose you are taking a long train ride and one of the passengers in your compartment starts talking strongly in favor of (or against) opinion X. Would you want to talk with this person so as to get to know his or her point of view better, or wouldn’t you want to do that?” In countries such as the United States, where long train trips are unusual, other questions can be used. The most common version is the so-called reporter question: “Suppose a television reporter approached you on the street and asked you on camera about . . .”
- the degree of emotionalization surrounding an issue – the strength of its moral component. There are a number of indicator questions that can possibly reveal the degree of emotionalization that a particular issue entails. Using one tried and tested model, respondents are presented with a number of topics and asked: “Which of these are delicate issues that might get you into hot water if you were to talk about them?”
- the intensity and bias of reporting on the issue by the opinion-setting mass media.
Another reason why it has proved so difficult to test the spiral of silence theory empirically is the fact that these requirements rarely occur simultaneously and, even when they do, researchers must be able to begin measuring the effects on time. In cases where this has been possible, however, the findings would seem to confirm the validity of the theory. Examples of this are Cheryl Katz and Mark Baldassare’s test of the theory completed during the 1992 US presidential elections, or Noelle-Neumann’s own test during the 2002 German federal election campaign (Katz and Baldassare 1994; NoelleNeumann and Petersen 2005).
- Bourdieu, P. (1979). Public opinion does not exist. In A. Mattelart & S. Siegelaub (eds.), Communication and class struggle. New York: International General, pp. 124–130.
- Glynn, C., & McLeod, J. M. (1985). Implications of the spiral of silence theory for communication and public opinion research. In K. R. Sanders, L. L. Kaid, & D. Nimmo (eds.), Political communication yearbook 1984. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, pp. 43–65.
- Glynn, C., Hayes, A. F., & Shanahan, J. (1997). Perceived support for one’s opinions and willingness to speak out: A meta-analysis of survey studies on the “spiral of silence.” Public Opinion Quarterly, 61, 452–463.
- Holcombe, A. W. (1923). The foundations if the modern commonwealth. New York: Harpers.
- Huang, H. (2005). A cross-cultural test of the spiral of silence. International Journal of Public Opinion Research, 17, 324–345.
- Katz, C., & Baldassare, M. (1994). Popularity in a freefall: Measuring a spiral of silence at the end of the Bush presidency. International Journal of Public Opinion Research, 6, 1–12.
- Noelle-Neumann, E. (1974). The spiral of silence: A theory of public opinion. Journal of Communication, 24, 43–51.
- Noelle-Neumann, E. (1993). The spiral of silence: Public opinion – our social skin, 2nd edn. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Noelle-Neumann, E., & Petersen, T. (2005). Verlorener Mut: Test der Schweigespirale anhand der Redebereitschaft von SPD-und CDU-Anhängern. In E. Noelle-Neumann, W. Donsbach, & H.-M. Kepplinger (eds.), Wählerstimmungen in der Mediendemokratie: Analysen auf der Basis des Bundestagswahlkampfs 2002. Freiburg: Alber, pp. 128–140.
- Salmon, C., & Kline, F. G. (1985). The spiral of silence ten years later. An examination and evaluation. In K. R. Sanders, L. L. Kaid, & D. Nimmo (eds.), Political communication yearbook 1984. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, pp. 3–30.
- Scheufele, D. A., & Moy, P. (2000). Twenty-five years of the spiral of silence: A conceptual review and empirical outlook. International Journal of Public Opinion Research, 12, 3–28.