Central Assumptions:

  • One's perception of the distribution of public opinion influences one's willingness to express opinions.
  • The spiral of silence demonstrates why people are unwilling to express their opinions (publicly) when they are not believed to be in the majority.
  • People feel an increasing pressure to conceal their views and opinions when they believe they are in minority.
  • Individuals perceptions of the opinions of others is a critical factor in determining their willingness to express those opinions.

Key Concepts:

Fear of Isolation:

  • Individuals will alter their behavior (ie, speaking out on an issue) due to innate fear of social isolation.
    • --Perry Gonzenbach
  • "Fear of Isolation" is a key determinant of what the public (people) will talk about, which in turn shapes public opinion.
  • Individuals who fear isolation, because their own opinions may not be accepted tend to remain silent on the issue.

Climate of Opinion:

  • Because of the fear of isolation, people continuously scan their environment to try to assess the climate of opinion at all times.
  • Includes:
    • Current distribution of opinion
    • Future prospects for the distribution of opinion (i.e., who will win the debate on an issue)
    • --Noelle-Neumann

Hard Cores:

  • The minority that remains at the end of a spiral of silence process in defiance of threats of isolation.
  • A hard core can turn its back to the public, can close itself off completely when it finds itself in public, with strangers.

Quasi-statistical Sense:

  • The process by which people sense moods and changes in public opinion.
  • We use this to determine "which opinions and modes of behavior are approved or disapproved of in their environment, and which opinions and forms of behavior are gaining or losing strength."
    • --Noelle-Neumann
  • Individuals constantly monitor their environment to check on the distribution of opinions and the future trend of the opinion.
    • --Scheufele & Moy

Willingness to Speakout and Tendency to Remain Silent:

  • Individuals tend to publicly express their opinions and attitudes when they perceive their view to be dominant or on the rise.
    • --Scheufele & Moy

Media's Effect on the Spiral of Silence:

  • Mass media has a lasting effect on public opinion.
  • "The theory manintains that mass media work simutaneously with majority public opinion to silence minority beliefs on cultural issues."
    • --Defining Communication Theories
  • "Mass media, particulary TV, tells us not only what to think about, but also imposes their reality of what everybody else is---supposedly---thinking about."
    • --Tim Buell
  • "I have never found a spiral of silence that goes against the tenor of the media, for the willingness to speakout depends in part upon sensing that there is support and legitimization from the media."
    • --Noelle-Neumann
  • The media provide people with the words and phrases they can use to defend a certain point of view. If people find no current, frequently repeated expressions for their point of view, they lapse into silence; they become effectively mute.


Application of the Spiral of Silence:

  • Noelle-Neumann quotes Tocquerville about religion in the eighteenth century in France.
  • People still clinging to the old faith were afraid of being the only ones who did so, and as they were more frightened of isolation than of committing an error, they joined the masses even though they did not agree with them. In this way, the opinion of only part of the population seemed to be the opinion of all and everybody, and exactly for this reason seemed irresistible to those who were responsible for this deceptive appearance.

Criticisms of the Spiral of Silence:

  • "Noelle-Neumann"s model predicts the complete accuracy of a respondent's perception of majority opinion and therefore cannot account for phenomena such as pluralistic ignorance or the looking-glass perception."
    • --Scheufele & Moy
  • Are we really good at assessing public opinion or is this simply pluralistic ignorance?
    • --D.Garth Taylor
  • How can one determine if someone truly believes they are in majority or not?