The theory of the spiral of silence, proposed in 1984 by the German sociologist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, maintains that people always have an opinion on the tendency of the majority on a specific theme and, given that they fear isolation, in the event that find themselves having an opinion that is different from that of the majority, they prefer to keep their opinions silent.
Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann highlights the fact that the opinions that the mass media neglect suffer, in people’s minds, a process of devaluation.
Few people are strong enough and free to bear the psychological burden of perceiving themselves isolated in their social context. This social behavior is based on the heuristic of conformism. In fact, when the media setting agenda highlights certain issues for public attention and neglects others, perhaps more real and urgent, the latter will fall into the spiral of silence accompanied by the frustration of those who they would like it to be discussed.
Each of us constantly receives a pressure to comply, especially due to the fear of social isolation. The urge to mediate one’s opinions with those of the group is a universal tendency, for this reason many evolutionary psychologists consider it a characteristic that increases the pleasantness and the attachment between the members of the same group. It is from here that prejudices and then stereotypes would be formed first.
Noelle Neumann formulates the theory of the „spiral of silence“ analyzing the electoral flows in West Germany in the second half of the Sixties. In a nutshell, in a process of spiraling silence one comes to believe what one thinks others believe.
The spiral was generated well before the advent of mass media (Tocqueville) but there is no doubt that television and the internet contribute to accelerating it, amplifying some opinions and making them circulate much faster than others, to obscure them or make them appear derisory. The spiral, writes Noelle Neumann, indicates a shift in opinion born of the fact that a group „appears stronger than it actually is, while those with different opinions appear weaker than they actually are.
The result is an optical or acoustic illusion concerning the actual situation of the majority, the balance of power „. people disdain in private something that they find themselves supporting in public. This would always be due to social desirability, that is, to present the image of us that is more likely to be accepted by others.