The Spiral Of Silence Keeps People From Speaking Out On The Issues That Matter Most

If you had to name the issue that's the most important to you, what would it be? Whether your opinion on it is shared by most people or puts you in the minority, there are a lot of reasons you might not feel like speaking up about it. Experts refer to this phenomenon as the "spiral of silence."

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Nobody's Talking About It

This effect has been studied the most in the area of climate change. In March 2016, The Yale Program On Climate Change Communication performed a national survey that had some pretty counterintuitive results. It's clear that climate change is close to people's hearts: more than 60 percent of Americans say the issue of global warming is at least somewhat important to them personally. However, a whopping 82 percent of them hear people talk about the issue less than once a month (24 percent never even hear it being discussed!), and 68 percent "rarely" or "never" discuss the issue with family and friends. If it's so important to people, why aren't they speaking up about it?

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What's Really Going On

The phenomenon got its name in the book The Spiral of Silence: Public Opinion—Our Social Skin by German political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann. The author pointed out that when it comes to opinions we hold on issues that are important to us, both people in the majority and those in the minority will keep quiet—just for different reasons. The majority assumes everyone thinks like them, so any discussion of their opinions would just be "preaching to the choir." The minority, meanwhile, assumes nobody thinks like them, so they fear being ostracized if they speak up. The key is that both groups misjudge how popular their opinions are, and operate on that assumption.

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As Olga Mecking writes in The Science of Us, that's not always a bad thing. "When people with racist, xenophobic, homophobic, or otherwise prejudiced views feel that they're in the minority, it means that oppressed groups may feel more comfortable expressing themselves, like the way LGBTQ people feel more comfortable coming out in states where same-sex marriage is legal." Still, if an issue is important enough, the spiral of silence can keep beneficial change from happening. So what's an opinionated person to do? Whether you think your views are shared by everybody or nobody, speak up. Who knows what you could accomplish?

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Written by Ashley Hamer March 24, 2017

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