• Cody McCauley

We're In a Spiral of Silence

Updated: Nov 1, 2020

With polarization in the United States at an all-time high, there hasn’t been such a stark contrast in beliefs and opinions since the start of the Civil War. In an environment where both sides of the aisle espouse the notion that “you’re either with us or against us”, it’s harder than ever for people to express their true opinions without fearing judgment.

Regardless of standing one way on issue X, if you hold contrasting views on issue Y you run the risk of being criticized or ostracized by the groups you belong to. Despite the overwhelmingly obvious benefits of finding mutual ground and working with each other to settle our differences, Americans in the 21st century stubbornly prefer to pick sides. This, of course, isn’t the case for everyone (I’d especially like to think so for my readers), but it’s the reality for much of our population.

This reality stood out in my mind after recently reading this informative piece from Farnam Street, dubbed the ‘Spiral of Silence’. While it doesn’t specifically hone in on our current national predicament, it’s an apt description of the environment we live in. As the spiral of silence sucks ever more people into its vortex, it’s critical we do our part to stop it before things devolve any further.

To stop something, you first need to understand the gears that keep it in motion. Through the work of social psychology, it's been clearly established that a person's willingness to express an opinion is a direct result of how popular or unpopular they perceive it to be. The more unpopular something is, the less likely we are to say it. This, of course, is fairly straightforward. This quote from the article paints things in a clear picture:

As social animals, we have good reason to be aware of whether voicing an opinion might be a bad idea. Cohesive groups tend to have similar views. Anyone who expresses an unpopular opinion risks social exclusion or even ostracism within a particular context or in general. This may be because there are concrete consequences, such as losing a job or even legal penalties. Or there may be less official social consequences, like people being less friendly or willing to associate with you. Those with unpopular views may suppress them to avoid social isolation.

Our perception of how safe, or popular, it is to say or do something is where things start to get a bit more complicated. And once you throw the internet and social media into the mix, that complication only intensifies. The ability to perceive safety and acceptance in a virtual setting is infinitely harder than reading a room full of people standing next to you. However, the emergence of online groups and communities devoted to certain ideologies counteracts the innate difficulty of gauging virtual sentiment and makes it easier than ever to find and voice your opinion in the echo chamber of your choosing.

As these echo chambers get bigger and bigger, unpopular views and opinions get squashed and pushed out to the edges. To date, Chapter 8 of Tim Urban’s series The Story of Us is the best piece I’ve come across on the implications of echo chambers. Despite its hefty length, I’d implore you to read it.

After learning how, and why, a spiral of silence exists, we need to understand its implications. Below are the four key implications that emerge as laid out in the FS article.

  1. The picture we have of what most people believe is not always accurate.

  2. The possibility of discord makes us less likely to voice an opinion at all, assuming we are not trying to drum up conflict.

  3. What seems like a sudden change in mainstream opinions can in fact be the result of a shift in what is acceptable to voice, not in what people actually think.

  4. Highly vocal holders of a minority opinion can end up having a disproportionate influence on public discourse.

Number four is the most dangerous, and the one most obviously impacting our nation today. In terms of politics, the majority of Americans don’t identify with the “Radical Left” or the “Far Right”. Yet, the voices of these two extremes have become the loudest in the room. Online environments—especially those where people can remain anonymous— have made it far easier to amplify fringe opinions. This, in turn, enables people to express extreme views on both ends of the spectrum to make it seem as though their opinions are far more prevalent than they actually are.

To combat this, the first step is to be aware. By recognizing that the narratives painted about large swaths of Americans are unlikely to align with the actual reality of their opinions, it becomes easier to mute and ignore what has become the loudest voices in the room. We need to see past the picture that the mainstream media has painted on both the left and the right. Big media has essentially turned political discourse into sports fandom. To be fair, I can't blame them. The narrative of us vs. them and our way vs. their way is highly profitable. But it isn't an accurate representation of reality.

The reality is that the majority of people don’t strictly hold opinions on one side of the aisle or the other. Americans have broad-ranging and diverse views, yet the spiral of silence has made sharing them taboo.

If more people internalized this fact, more people would be willing to express their true beliefs and opinions. And if more people expressed their true opinions, we could begin to escape our spiral of silence. So don’t be afraid to speak up and to speak your mind. For every one person that speaks their truth, they instill confidence in someone else to do the same.

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