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The Spiral of Silence: Why We're Scared of Speaking Out

Table of Contents

This is an except from Mind Macros 08.

"The German political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann coined the term 'spiral of silence' in 1974 to refer to a phenomenon that we see often today: people’s willingness to speak freely depends upon their unconscious perceptions of how popular their opinions are. People who believe their opinions are not shared by anyone else are more likely to remain quiet; their silence itself increases the impression that no one else thinks as they do; this increases their feelings of isolation and artificially inflates the confidence of those with the majority opinion." — From Wanting by Luke Burgis (view my three takeaways).

Information decentralization was the dream of the digital age. However, something unexpected happened instead.

Rather than providing the chance to access evidence on both sides of an argument, the internet became a closed echo chamber. Most people are now only consuming information that aligns with their preexisting views. This trend results in a society so polarized that it's unwilling to listen to the other side's points before dismissing them as crazy. We intentionally exclude those who do not share our views from our digital (and physical) environment.

The spiral of silence is a natural result of residing in an echo chamber. Members who present evidence against the doctrine are removed and labeled enemies of the group. Avoiding becoming a social outcast is in our DNA. In our hunter-gatherer days, tribe banishment meant certain death. Clinging to social ties has become more important than truth, logic, and rationality because of this bias.

Think you're immune?

Have you ever found it easier to avoid conflict with someone by not saying what you really think?

While it might not matter if Mark never finds out that you disagree with his views on immigration, imagine the same behavior scaled up.

Perhaps a table of presidential advisors are merely saving face, not wanting to lose their jobs and choosing not to share critical information that would anger the President. The implications could be catastrophic.

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong explains in his book, Think Again, how fragmented the United States has become:

"In 1994, only 16% of Democrats and 17% of Republicans held a very unfavorable view of the other party. By 2016, majorities in both parties expressed very unfavorable views of the other party: 58% of Republicans and 55% of Democrats. Even more alarmingly, 45% of Republicans in 2016 saw policies of the Democratic Party as 'so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being,’ and 41% of Democrats in 2016 felt the same about Republican Party policies.​

"In 2010, 49% of Republicans and 33% of Democrats in the United States reported that they would be displeased if their child married outside of their political party, whereas less than 5% of both parties had said this in 1960. Polarized politics has infected personal relations.

"In 2014, 50% of consistently conservative Republicans and 35% of consistently liberal Democrats agreed with the statement, 'It is important to me to live in a place where most people share my political views.'

"Similarly, 63% of consistently conservative Republicans and 49% of consistently liberal Democrats agreed that 'Most of my close friends share my political views.'"

I read, you learn.

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