The Spiral of Silence


The Spiral of Silence is a model of why people are unwilling to publicly express their opinions when they believe they are in the minority. The model is based on three premises:

  1. people have a "quasi-statistical organ," a sixth-sense if you will, which allows them to know the prevailing public opinion, even without access to polls,
  2. people have a fear of isolation and know what behaviors will increase their likelihood of being socially isolated, and
  3. people are reticent to express their minority views, primarily out of fear of being isolated.

The closer a person believes the opinion held is similar to the prevailing public opinion, the more they are willing to openly disclose that opinion in public. Then, if public sentiment changes, the person will recognize that the opinion is less in favor and will be less willing to express that opinion publicly. As the perceived distance between public opinion and a person's personal opinion grows, the more unlikely the person is to express their opinion.

Consider the case of Dennis Rodman, one of the stars of the Chicago Bulls basketball team. Mr. Rodman has consistently been an incredible competitor and rebounder for the Detroit Pistons, San Antonio Spurs, and Chicago Bulls. Over the years he attracted a large fan base, but watched it fall in recent years as he got "weirder" or more "individualistic" (depending on how you interpret his behavior). Fans in San Antonio welcomed Mr. Rodman when he first arrived, but vocal supporters were hard to find just before he was traded to Chicago. At the start of the 1996-1997 season Mr. Rodman's stock was high in Chicago, falling off somewhat after the "kick the cameraman" incident. I wish him well, but if the public becomes displeased with him the Spiral of Silence will strike his supporters once again.


For detailed information read:

Noelle-Neumann, E. (1984). The Spiral of Silence: Public Opinion -- Our social skin. Chicago: University of Chicago.

Noelle-Neumann, E. (1991). The theory of public opinion: The concept of the Spiral of Silence. In J. A. Anderson (Ed.), Communication Yearbook 14, 256-287. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

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