Group Contributors:

Sasha Geukjian, Dawn McGuckin, Nathan Bugden and Kate Dykstra
Abstract
The Spiral of Silence is a theory of public opinion. The term refers to the increasing pressure people feel to conceal their views when they think they are in the minority. According to the theory, the individual observes their environment to assess the distribution of opinions. It is not the actual but the apparent, publicly visible strength of opinions that the individual assesses. The more one feels his ideas are not shared by others, the more uncertain he will feel. Therefore, he is less likely to share his opinions publicly.

Keywords

public opinion, fear of isolation, social environment, silence, mass media

History of the Spiral of Silence

In 1974, Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, a German political scientist, published the theoretical work Spiral of Silence, which sought out to understand why people will often not state their opinion if they believe that it is in the minority. [1]
Her research originated out of her questioning why so many citizens in Germany remained silent during the war when years later they claimed to have been against the ideas of the Nazis all along. The origin of her work is quite interesting considering her apparent link to the Nazis in the late 1930's writing for their newspaper Das Reich.
Her work and theories can be related to studies on conformity by Stanley Milgram and Solomon Asch. [2]

The Theory

(The generic he is used in this section. Note that the theory refers to both males and females.)
The Spiral of Silence is a theory of public opinion. If one feels that his views are in the minority, he will keep quiet. Noelle-Neumann’s theory is founded on three key ideas. First of all, it is suggested that people have a "quasi-statistical organ", a sixth sense which gives them an inner insight into public opinion. Secondly, an individual is more concerned about being isolated than of being judged for his opinion. Finally, due to fear of isolation, individuals will remain silent if they feel that their views are in the minority. [3]
Before giving an opinion, any individual will look at his social environment. The more similar he feels that his opinion is to the public opinion, the more likely he will be to openly discuss his views. The greater the difference between an individual’s views and that which he perceives to be the public opinion, the less likely he will be to share his views. An individual will determine the extent to which he feels he will be isolated by first looking at his social environment and then by assessing how the opinions of others are distributed in relation to being either for or against his ideas. As well, the individual will evaluate the strength and chances of success of other’s viewpoints. [2]
When an individual agrees with a publicly accepted opinion, the self-confidence of the individual is boosted. As the individual does not need to fear isolation, he will feel more confident to cut down the ideas of those who do not share his view. However, the more one feels that his views are not shared with others, the more uncertain he will feel, and the less likely he will be to share his opinion publicly. [3]
Noelle-Neumann’s study found that those most likely to speak out, even when their views differ from those of the majority, are: men, younger persons, executive and high-level workers, and those in the middle to upper classes. [3]

Role of the Media
Noelle-Neumann believes that the media accelerates the muting of the minority in the spiral of silence. Television is particularly influential because of its omni-presence, its single point of view, and the constant repetition of its message. The theory also states that the media has an intrusive role in democratic decision-making. Noelle-Neuman claims, "The media do more than set the agenda; they provide the sanctioned view of what everyone else is thinking." The media’s primary influence renders media access crucial for those who desire to shape public opinion.
The media also perpetuates pluralistic ignorance, a term coined by Daniel Katz and Floyd H. Allport in 1931, which describes a situation where a majority of group members privately reject a norm, but assume (incorrectly) that most others accept it. Noelle-Neumann argues that pluralistic ignorance results from the media giving a disproportionate mix of viewpoints relative to their actual strength in society. An example could include the media's over-representation of binge drinking in college students. A college student would incorrectly assume that all of their peers engage in binge drinking and thus follow the trend to avoid being ostrasized. In reality several of their peers may also want to avoid binge drinking as well.

Spiral of Silence in the Classroom
There are several implications for the Spiral of Silence in the classroom. The three key points are; fear of rejection, the sharing of opinions and labelling. As well educators must be aware that students are social beings who are afraid to be isolated, and therefore would rather be popular. This is particularly evident in secondary school. As well, individuals who notice their own opinion being gratified will more likely voice their opinion with greater confidence. [5]

In order to eradicate the Sprial from their classroom, educators must ask themselves several questions:
1) Are there any concerns about the social environment that an individual may think are pertinent?
2) Are the participants of the classroom concerned about the possibility of isolation from the class based on their opinions?
3) How dominantly are segregated opinions polarized?
Once educators are aware of these conditions, they can take steps toward producing a more open and productive learning environment.

References:

[1] Noelle-Neumann, E. (1984). The Spiral of Silence: Public Opinion -- Our social skin. Chicago: University of Chicago.
[2] University of Twente. (2010). Spiral of Silence. Retrieved from http://www.utwente.nl/cw/theorieenoverzicht/Theory%20clusters/Mass%20Media/spiral_of_silence.doc/
[3] Noelle-Neumann, E. (1974). The spiral of silence A theory of public opinion. Journal of Communication, 24(2), 43-51.
[4] Bowen, F., & Blackmon, K. (2003). Spirals of silence: The dynamic effects of diversity on organizational voice*. Journal of Management Studies, 40(6), 1393-1417.
[5] Noelle-Neumann, E. (1977). Turbulences in the Climate of Opinion: Methodological Applications of the Spiral of Silence Theory. Public Opinion Quarterly, 43 (2), 143-158.
[6] Noelle-Neumann, E. (1979). Public Opinion and the Classical Tradition: A Re-evaluation. Public Opinion Quarterly, 41(2), 143-156.
Scheufle, 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(1), 3.
Zhang, W. (2010). Enlightenment of “The Spiral of Silence” Theory to Enterprise Crisis Management. International Journal of Business and Management, 5(8), 191-194. Retrieved September 28, 2010, from http://www.ccsenet.org/journal/index.php/ijbm/article/viewFile/6930/5497