The Spiral of Silence (And How to Break Free From It)

The Spiral of Silence | DARLING

Health care reform, abortion, immigration, US involvement in the Middle East, changes to marriage laws and religious freedoms.

These are examples of highly emotional issues that have been on the public agenda in America these past few years. It’s likely that you have an opinion on most of these topics. Some of your opinions may be stronger than others because the issue is more important to you.

Do you feel comfortable openly expressing your views on these issues? Or, do you remain silent when these topics are brought up and keep your opinions to yourself? If you fall into the second camp, are you looking for a way to find your voice when faced by opposition?

Often our decision to speak or remain silent on an issue depends a lot on the environment we’re in and if we believe that our view is shared by the people we’re surrounded by. For example, I know from personal experience that in the workplace it’s tough to share your opinion on an issue when surrounded by coworkers who all seem to have an opposing view. On the flip side, I have also freely and openly shared my opinions on issues among groups that I appeared to be likeminded with.

According to scholar Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann’s Spiral of Silence theory, this occurs because people are likely to express their views on an issue when they think that their opinion is held by most other people. However, the theory explains that when people perceive that their opinion on an issue is not shared by most other people, in other words, when they perceive it to be the minority view, they will refrain from speaking out because of a fear of social isolation (being socially shunned; being isolated or punished for voicing opinions contrary to the majority view in your community).

Often our decision to speak or remain silent on an issue depends a lot on the environment we’re in and if we believe that our view is shared by the people we’re surrounded by.

When people who perceive that they are in the minority do not speak up, those who believe they have the majority opinion will often become more vocal. This can then lead the opinions of the majority to increase in number and force. When this happens, it can lead to a spiral of silence among individuals with alternative views as they become less and less likely to publicly share their opinion the more popular the majority view appears to be.

What can break the spiral of silence?

We all know from experience there are times when people with minority views speak up and share their opinion, regardless of the consequences to themselves. Researchers have found that in these instances, individuals typically decide to voice their opinions when (1) the issue is very important to them and they care deeply about it, and (2) they are confident in their attitudes – convinced that they possess the truth.

When people are moved by these two factors to share, they are the ones who break the spiral of silence on an issue. Have you been there before? Have you ever shared your views on an issue even though those around you had opposite ones?  It could have been in your college classroom, in your workplace, on social media, or even among your family members over a holiday dinner. It may have been a bit intimidating or scary, but you still shared with a conviction that you possessed the truth, regardless of the repercussions.

Finding Your Voice

If you personally perceive that you have a less popular view and are struggling to speak your opinion on an issue, there are a few takeaways from this research that may help you find your voice.

First, do your research. If you know why  you believe what you believe, you will become more confident in your opinion and more prepared to share when the situation arises. Next, realize that it is likely that you are not the only one with that particular minority opinion in your group. It is simply easier to share your views when you perceive that others agree with you. Many times, people are not trying to be mean or rude when they are vocal with their opinions, they often just assume that everybody agrees with them because of the popularity of their view. Finally, when you do decide to publicly share your opinion, be cautious and thoughtful about how you are going to do it. If you are anxious about the consequences of sharing your minority view in a hostile environment, remember the old adage, “you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”

Debate and banter can be stimulating when spoken with care and respect; they can broaden everyone’s perspectives. While it may appear you are the only one holding a particular view, remember that it’s likely others feel the same way you do. In these instances it may seem daunting, but you can easily break the spiral of silence and stand up for your beliefs. Just speak up with confidence and watch as others – who have remained silent — emerge from the crowd.

Have you championed a minority viewpoint before? What was your experience like?

Image via Henry El’ Day



With a Ph.D. in communication from the University of Arizona, Keli was a professor at Pepperdine University for six years. Her research focuses on the media's influence on people and the sexual messages in today's television programs. Taking a break from academia, she now lives in Dallas, TX with her husband and two young daughters.

4 COMMENTS
  • Maggi Normile December 23, 2015

    Great article! I recently heard about the “spiral of silence” theory while watching a video about one of my heroes, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, so I started seeking out more information about it. As a Christian, I know how hard it can be to speak up for your beliefs, even among fellow Christians, when you know you may be in the minority. But I have also found that many times, more people actually do agree with you. They’re just too intimidated to stand up and say so. If one person stands up for what’s right, many others will start doing the same.

    • Keli January 11, 2016

      Thanks for the comment, Maggi! I’d love to see that video of Bonhoeffer. I can’t imagine how difficult it would have been to stand up for your beliefs in Nazi Germany! That’s a great example of the theory at work.

  • Michelle Hass October 15, 2015

    Keli,
    What a wonderful article. Just what I needed to rekindle the importance of reentering the ring as a keynote speaker. God has recently given me such a wonderful opportunity to serve my community in the ministry of Post-Abortion healing. As a new author, I have a new platform from which to share my testimony as a three time post-abortive woman, who recently found freedom from living the past twenty five years of my life in the darkness of debilitating guilt and shame. Thank you for your encouraging insight.
    In CHRiST, Michelle Hass

    • Keli January 11, 2016

      Thank you for the comment, Michelle! It’s great to hear that the article was an encouragement for you!

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