spiral of silence theory

The spiral of silence theory is a political science and mass communication theory proposed by the German political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, which stipulates that individuals have a fear of isolation, which results from the idea that a social group or the society in general might isolate, neglect, or exclude members due to the members’ opinions. This fear of isolation consequently leads to remaining silent instead of voicing opinions. Media is an important factor that relates to both the dominant idea and people’s perception of the dominant idea. The assessment of one’s social environment may not always correlate with reality.[1]

According to Shelly Neill, “Introduced in 1974, the Spiral of Silence Theory […] explores hypotheses to determine why some groups remain silent while others are more vocal in forums of public disclosure.”[2] The spiral of silence theory suggests that “people who have believed that they hold a minority viewpoint on a public issue will remain in the background where their communication will be restrained; those who believe that they hold a majority viewpoint will be more encouraged to speak.”[3]

The theory explains the formation of social norms at both the micro and macro level. “As a micro-theory, the spiral of silence examines opinion expression, controlling for people’s predispositions – such as fear of isolation, and also demographic variables that have been shown to influence people’s willingness to publicly express opinions on issues, such as agricultural biotechnology.”[1] The spiral of silence occurs on a macro level if more and more members of the perceived minority fall silent. This is when public perceptions of the opinion climate begin to shift.[1] “In other words, a person’s individual reluctance to express his or her opinion, simply based on perceptions of what everyone else thinks, has important implications at the social level.”[1] As one opinion gains the interest of the majority, the minority faces threat and fear of isolation from society. As the opinion gains momentum by the majority, the minority continues to be threatened and falls deeper into their silence. It continues until the minority no longer speaks out against it, and the opinion of the perceived majority ultimately becomes a social norm.[4]

The spiral model is an analogy used to visually describe the theory. The end of the spiral refers to the number of people who are not publicly expressing their opinions, due to the fear of isolation. An individual is more likely to go down the spiral if his or her opinion does not conform with the perceived majority opinion.[4] The following steps summarize how the process works:

  1. We can distinguish between fields where the opinions and attitudes involved are static, and fields where those opinions and attitudes are subject to changes… Where opinions are relatively definite and static – for example, “customs” – one has to express or act according to this opinion in public or run the risk of becoming isolated. In contrast, where opinions are in flux, or disputed, the individual will try to find out which opinion he can express without becoming isolated.
  2. Individuals who, when observing their environments, notice that their own personal opinion is spreading and is taken over by others, will voice this opinion self-confidently in public. On the other hand, individuals who notice that their own opinions are losing ground will be inclined to adopt a more reserved attitude when expressing their opinions in public.
  3. It follows from this that, as the representatives of the first opinion talk quite a lot while the representatives of the second opinion remain silent, there is a definite influence on the environment: an opinion that is being reinforced in this way appears stronger than it really is, while an opinion suppressed as described will seem to be weaker than it is in reality.
  4. The result is a spiral process which prompts other individuals to perceive the changes in opinion and follow suit, until one opinion has become established as the prevailing attitude while the other opinion will be pushed back and rejected by everybody with the exception of the hard core that nevertheless sticks to that opinion.[5]

This is a process of formation, change and reinforcement of public opinion. The tendency of the one to speak up and the other to be silent starts off a spiraling process which increasingly establishes one opinion as the dominant one. Over time, these changing perceptions establish one opinion as predominant one and they change from the liquid state to a solid norm.[5]

Further, Noelle-Neumann describes the spiral of silence as a dynamic process, in which predictions about public opinion become fact as mass media’s coverage of the majority opinion becomes the status quo, and the minority becomes less likely to speak out.[6]

Scholars have long argued over the concept of public within “public opinion”. The use of “public” and “the public” betrays multiple competing meanings.[4] There are three meanings of public. One meaning is the legal sense of public that focuses on openness. For example, a public place or path. A second meaning for the term emphasizes public rights. Lastly, within the phrase public opinion, public is said to have a related but different definition. Public, in this sense, could be characterized as social psychology. Scholars have marveled in amazement at the power public opinion has in making regulations, norms, and moral rules triumph over the individual self without ever troubling legislators, governments or courts for assistance.[4]

“Common Opinion” is what the Scottish social philosopher David Hume called it in his 1739 published work A Treatise of Human Nature. Agreement and a sense of the common is what lay behind the English and French “opinion.”[4] In researching the term opinion, meinung in German, researchers were led back to Plato‘s Republic. In Plato’s Republic, a quote from Socrates conclude that opinion takes the middle position. Immanuel Kant considered opinion to be an “insufficient judgement, subjectively as well as objectively.”[7] How valuable opinion may be was left out; however, the fact that it is suggested to be unified agreement of a population, or segment of the population, was still considered.[4]

The term public opinion first emerged in France during the eighteenth century. The definition of public opinion has been debated over time. There has not been much progress in locking in one classification of the phrase public opinion. Hermann Oncken, a German historian, stated

It was said to be a “fiction that belonged in a museum of the history of ideas; it could only be of historical interest.”[4]

In contradiction to that quote, the term public opinion seemed to not cease. During the early 1970s, Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann was creating the theory of the spiral of silence. She was making an effort to clarify the 1965 finding of which voting intentions would not change but yet expectations that one side would win continued to increase. Noelle-Nuemann began to question if she was indeed grabbing a handle on what public opinion actually was. “The spiral of silence might be one of the forms in which public opinion appeared; it might be a process through which a new, youthful public opinion develops or whereby the transformed meaning of an old opinion spreads.”[4]

The American sociologist Edward Ross described public opinion in 1898 using the word “cheap”. “The equation of ‘public opinion’ with ‘ruling opinion’ runs like a common thread through its many definitions. This speaks to the fact that something clinging to public opinion sets up conditions that move individuals to act, even against their own will.”[8]

Many possible meanings and definitions of the term have been explored. Scholars have considered the content of public opinion, assumed to consist of public affairs issues. Scholars point out that the emergence of the public opinion depends on an open public discourse rather than “on the discipline imposed by an apparent majority dominant enough to intimidate but whose views may or may not support actions that are in the common interest.”[9]

They have also considered whose opinion establishes public opinion, assumed to be persons of a community who are ready to express themselves responsibly about questions of public relevance. Scholars have also looked into the forms of public opinion, said to be those that are openly expressed and accessible; opinions that are made public, especially in the mass media. Controversy surrounding this term spiraled around both words combining to form the phrase.[4]

Mass media’s effects on both public opinion and the perception of the public opinion are central to the Spiral of Silence Theory. One of the earliest works that called attention to the relationship between media and the formation of public opinion was Walter Lippmann‘s book “Public Opinion,” published in 1923.[10] Ideas of Lippmann regarding the effects of media influenced the emergence of the Spiral of Silence Theory. As she is building the spiral theory, Noelle-Neumann states “the reader can only complete and explain the world by making use of a consciousness which in large measure has been created by the mass media.”[8]

Agenda-setting theory is another work that Noelle-Neumann builds on as she is characterizing media’s effect on the public opinion. Agenda-setting theory describes the relationship between media and public opinion by asserting that the public importance of an issue depends on its salience in the media.[11] Along with setting the agenda, the media further determines the salient issues through a constant battle with other events attempting to gain place in the agenda.[8] The media battles with these news alternatives by creating “pseudo-crises” and “pseudo-novelties.”[8]

Media’s characteristics as a communication tool further affect people’s perception of their own ideas in regard to the public opinion.[8] According to Noelle-Neumann, the media is a “one-sided, indirect, public form of communication, contrasting threefold with the most natural form of human communication, the conversation.”[8] These characteristics of the media in particular further overwhelm one’s individual ideas.

While some media communication theories assume a passive audience, such as the Hypodermic Needle model,[12] the spiral model assumes an active audience “who consumes media products in the context of their personal and social goals.”[12] Knowledge “gained from the mass media may offer ammunition for people to express their opinions and offer a rationale for their own stance.”[13] Ho et al. point out that “among individuals who paid high amount of media attention, those who have a low fear of isolation were significantly more likely to offer a rationale for their own opinion than were those who have a high fear of isolation.”[13]

Noelle-Neuman regards media central to the formulation of the Spiral of Silence Theory, whereas some scholars argue whether the dominant idea in one’s social environment overwhelms the dominant idea that media proposes as the perceived social norm.[14][15] Some empirical research align with this perspective; suggesting that the “micro-climate” of an individual overwhelms the effects of the media.[15] Other articles further suggest that talking with others is the primary way of understanding the opinion climate.[16]

The fear of isolation is the centrifugal force that accelerates the spiral of silence.[17] Essentially, people fear becoming social isolates and thus take measures to avoid such a consequence, as demonstrated by psychologist Solomon Asch in the Asch conformity experiments.[18] People feel more comfortable by agreeing with opinions that they know are wrong instead of telling others their ideas.[1]

This assumption proposes that in order to avoid becoming isolated and in order not to lose popularity and esteem, people constantly observe their environment very closely. They try to find out which opinions and modes of behaviour are prevalent, and which opinions and modes of behaviour are becoming more popular. They behave and express themselves accordingly in public. Then, they try to determine whether they are in the majority: whether the public opinion tends to agree with them. If they feel they are in the minority, they tend to remain silent.[19]

Individuals use what is described as “an innate ability” or quasi-statistical sense to gauge public opinion.[20] People assume they can sense and figure out what others are thinking.[1]

Pluralistic ignorance may occur in some cases, leading to the minority opinion to be accepted as a norm. Group members may be privately rejecting a norm, but may falsely assume that other group members accept it. This phenomenon may cause a group to hold on to a norm.[22]

Our evaluation of a public opinion has an effect on our decision to speak up. Where opinions are relatively definite and static – customs, for example – one has to express or act according to this opinion in public or run the risk of becoming isolated. In contrast, where opinions are in flux, or disputed, the individual will try to find out which opinion he can express without becoming isolated. Individuals tend to publicly express their opinions and attitudes when they perceive their view to be dominant or on the rise. Conversely, when individuals perceive that their opinion is less popular or losing popularity, they are less likely to voice it in public. What one individual decides to do affects all of society around them.[1]

The theory explains a vocal minority (the complement of the silent majority) by stating that people who are highly educated, or who have greater affluence, and the few other cavalier individuals who do not fear isolation, are likely to speak out regardless of public opinion.[23] It further states that this minority is a necessary factor of change while the compliant majority is a necessary factor of stability, with both being a product of evolution. There is a vocal minority, which remains at the top of the spiral in defiance of threats of isolation.

This theory calls these vocal minorities the hardcore nonconformist or the avant-garde. Hardcore nonconformists are “people who have already been rejected for their beliefs and have nothing to lose by speaking out.”[17] The hardcore has the ability to reconfigure majority opinion. While the avant-garde are “the intellectuals, artists, and reformers in the isolated minority who speak out because they are convinced they are ahead of the times.”[17]

The spiral of silence has brought insight regarding diverse topics, ranging from speaking about popular culture phenomena,[24] to smoking.[25] Considering that the spiral of silence is more likely to occur in controversial issues and issues with a moral component,[8] many scholars have applied the theory to controversial topics, such as abortion,[26] affirmative action,[27] and capital punishment.[28]

Existing literature prior to the spiral of silence theory suggest a relationship between social conformity and culture, motivating communication scholars to conduct cross-cultural analysis of the theory. Scholars in the field of psychology in particular previously addressed the cultural variance involved in the conformity to the majority opinion.[29] More recent studies confirm the link between conformity and culture: a meta-analysis regarding Asch conformity experiments, for example, suggest that collectivist cultures are more likely to exhibit conformity than the individualistic cultures.[30]

A Cross Cultural Test of the Spiral of Silence by Huiping Huang analyzes the results of a telephone survey done in Taiwan and the United States. The hypotheses tested were the beliefs that the United States is an “individualistic” society, while Taiwan is a “collectivist” society. This suggested that the spiral of silence is less likely to be activated in the United States, because individuals are more likely to put emphasis on their personal goals. They put the “I” identity over the “we” identity, and strive for personal success. Therefore, it was hypothesized that they would be more likely to speak out, regardless of if they are in the minority. On the other hand, it was predicted that individuals in Taiwan put more emphasis on the collective goal, so they would conform to the majority influence in hopes of avoiding tension and conflict. The study also tested the effect of motives, including self-efficacy and self-assurance.

Telephone surveys were conducted; the citizens of the United States were questioned in regards to American involvement in Somalia, and the citizens of Taiwan about the possibility of a direct presidential election. Both issues focused on politics and human rights, and were therefore comparable. Respondents were asked to choose “favor,” “neutral” or “oppose” in regards to the categories of themselves, family and friends, the media, society, and society in the future about the given issue. Measurements were also taken regarding the individualism and collectivism constructs, and the “motives of not expressing opinion” based on a 1–10 and 1–5 scale respectively, in approval of given statements.

Results showed support for the original hypothesis. Overall, Americans were more likely to speak out than Taiwanese. Being incongruous with the majority lessened the motivation of the Taiwanese to speak out (and they had a higher collectivist score), but had little effect on the Americans. In Taiwan, future support and belief of society played a large role in likeliness to voice an opinion, and support that the activation of the spiral of silence is in effect. In the United States, it was hypothesized that because they were more individualistic, they would be more likely to speak out if in the minority, or incongruous group. However, this was not true, but Huang suggests that perhaps the issue chosen was not directly prevalent, and therefore, they found it “unnecessary to voice their objections to the majority opinion.” Lack of self-efficacy led to lack of speaking out in both countries.[31]

Basque Nationalism and the Spiral of Silence is an article by Spencer and Croucher that analyzes the public perception of ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, a militant separatist group) in Spain and France. This study was conducted in a similar way as above, with Basque individuals from Spain and France being questioned about their support of ETA. They were asked questions such as “How likely would you be to enter into a conversation with a stranger on a train about ETA?” Taken into consideration were the cultural differences of the two different regions in which ETA existed.

The results supported the theory of the spiral of silence. While there was a highly unfavorable opinion of the group, there was a lack of an outcry to stop it. Individuals claimed that they were more likely to voice their opinions to non-Basques, suggesting that they have a “fear of isolation” in regards to fellow Basques. Furthermore, the Spanish individuals questioned were more likely to be silent because of their greater proximity to the violent acts.[32]

One study, by Henson and Denker “investigates perceptions of silencing behaviors, political affiliation, and political differences as correlates to perceptions of university classroom climates and communication behaviors.”[33] They looked at whether students’ view of the classroom changes whether they perceive the instructor and other classmates with a different political affiliation, with the instructor and other classmates communicating using silencing behaviors. The article stated that little has been investigated into student-teacher interactions in the classroom, and how the students are influenced.[33] The goal of the article was to “determine how political ideas are expressed in the university classrooms, and thus, assess the influence of classroom communication on the perceptions of political tolerance.”[33]

The article claimed that university classrooms are an adequate place to scrutinize the spiral of silence theory because it is a place that has interpersonal, cultural, media, and political communication. Henson and Denker said, “Because classroom interactions and societal discourse are mutually influential, instructors and students bring their own biases and cultural perspectives into the classroom.”[33]

The study researched whether there was a correlation between students’ perception that they were being politically silenced and their perceived differences in student-instructor political affiliation. The study also questioned whether there was any connection between the perceived climate and the similarity of the student and instructor on their political affiliations.[33] The researchers used participants from a Midwestern university’s communication courses. The students answered a survey over their perceptions of political silencing, classroom climate, and the climate created by the instructor. The results of this research found that there is a positive relationship of the perceived similarities in political party and ideological differences of the student and instructor to perceived greater political silencing.[33]

While the studies regarding the spiral of silence theory focused on face-to-face interaction before 2000, the theory was later applied to a computer-mediated communication environment. The first study in this context analyzed communication behaviors in online chat rooms regarding the issue of abortion, and revealed that minority opinion holders were more likely to speak out, whereas their comments remained neutral.[34] Another study focused on the Korean bulletin board postings regarding the national election, and found a relationship between online postings and the presentation of candidates in the mainstream media.[35] The third study focuses on the online review system, suggesting that the fear of isolation tend to reduce the willingness of members to voice neutral and negative reviews.[36] The Spiral of Silence Theory is extended “into the context of non-anonymous multichannel communication platforms” and “the need to consider the role of communicative affordances in online opinion expression” is also addressed.[36]

Current literature suggests that the spiral model can be applied to the social media context. Gearhart and Zhang conduct a study to examine whether or not the use of social media will increase people’s motivation to express their opinions about political issues. The results suggest that social media users “who have received a strong negative reaction to their politically related posts are likely to censor themselves, exemplifying the spiral of silence effect”.[37] Another research confirms the positive relationship between speaking out and issue importance on the social media context as well: individuals who view gay bullying as a significant social issue are more likely to comment on Facebook.[38]

The spiral of silence theory can be also applied to social capital context. Recent studies see social capital as “a variable that enables citizens to develop norms of trust and reciprocity, which are necessary for successful engagement in collective activities”.[39] One study examines three individual-level indicators of social capital–civic engagement, trust and neighborliness, and the relationship between these indicators and people’s willingness to express their opinions and their perception of support for one’s opinions. The results suggest that civic engagement has a direct effect on people’s willingness to express their opinions and neighborliness and trust had direct positive effects on people’s perception of support for one’s opinions.[39] Also, the study shows that “only a direct (but not indirect) effect of civic engagement on opinion expression further highlights a potential difference between bonding and bridging social capital”.[39]

The concept of isolation has a variety of definitions, dependent upon the circumstances it is investigated in. In one instance the problem of isolation has been defined as social withdrawal, defined as low relative frequencies of peer interaction.[40][41] Other researchers have defined isolation as low levels of peer acceptance or high levels of peer rejection.[42] Research that considers isolation with regard to the Internet either focuses on how the Internet makes individuals more isolated from society by cutting off their contact from live human beings[43][44][45] or how the Internet decreases social isolation of people by allowing them to expand their social networks and giving them more means to stay in touch with friends and family.[46][47] Since the development of the Internet, and in particular the World Wide Web, a wide variety of groups have come into existence, including Web and Internet Relay Chat (IRC), newsgroups, multiuser dimensions (MUDs), and, more recently, commercial virtual communities.[48]The theories and hypotheses about how Internet-based groups impact individuals are numerous and wide-ranging. Some researchers view these fast growing virtual chat cliques, online games, or computer-based marketplaces as a new opportunity, particularly for stigmatized people, to take a more active part in social life.[49][50][51]

Traditionally, social isolation has been represented as a one-dimensional construct organized around the notion of a person’s position outside the peer group and refers to isolation from the group as a result of being excluded from the group by peers.[52] From children to adults, literature shows that people understand the concept of isolation and fear the repercussions of being isolated from groups of which they are a member. Fearing isolation, people did not feel free to speak up if they feel they hold dissenting views, which means people restrict themselves to having conversation with like-minded individuals, or have no conversation whatsoever.[53] Witschge further explained, “Whether it is fear of harming others, or fear to get harmed oneself, there are factors that inhibit people from speaking freely, and which thus results in a non-ideal type of discussion, as it hinders diversity and equality of participants and viewpoints to arise fully.”[54]

The medium of the Internet has the power to free people from the fear of social isolation, and in doing so, shuts down the spiral of silence. The Internet allows people to find a place where they can find groups of people with like mindsets and similar points of view. Van Alstyne and Brynjolfsson stated that “Internet users can seek out interactions with like-minded individuals who have similar values, and thus become less likely to trust important decisions to people whose values differ from their own.”[55]The features of the Internet could not only bring about more people to deliberate by freeing people of psychological barriers, but also bring new possibilities in that it “makes manageable large-scale, many-to-many discussion and deliberation.”[56] Unlike traditional media that limit participation, the Internet brings the characteristics of empowerment, enormous scales of available information, specific audiences can be targeted effectively and people can be brought together through the medium.[57]

The Internet is a place where many reference and social groups are available with similar views. It has become a place where it appears that people have less of a fear of isolation. One research article examined individuals’ willingness to speak their opinion online and offline. Through survey results, from 305 participants, a comparison and contrast of online and offline spiral of silence behaviors was determined.[58] Liu and Fahmy stated that “it is easy to quit from an online discussion without the pressure of complying with the majority group.”[59] This is not to say that a spiral of silence does not occur in an online environment. People are still less likely to speak out, even in an online setting, when there is a dominant opinion that differs from their own.[59] But people in the online environment will speak up if someone has a reference group that speaks up for them.[59] In an online situation, just having one person be there to encourage a minority point of view can put an end to a spiral of silence. Another reason for why the spiral of silence theory has less of an effect online could be that studies do not acknowledge whether the person is more likely to speak out against dominant views offline as well.[59] The person might have characteristics that make him comfortable speaking out against dominant views offline, which make them just as comfortable speaking out in an online setting. Even though research suggests that there is a chance people will speak out with their opinions more often in an online setting, silencing of views can still occur. Another research article examined the influence of different opinion climates in online forums (opinion congruence with the majority of forum participants vs. website source) and found personal opinion congruence was more influential than the online site in which the forum is situated in.[60]Gonzenbach and Nekmat said it might be worth researching whether the factors in these studies or other factors cause people to be more comfortable when it comes to speaking their mind while online.[60]

The nature of the Internet facilitates not only the participation of more people, but also a more heterogeneous group of people. Page stated, “The onward rush of electronic communications technology will presumably increase the diversity of available ideas and the speed and ease with which they fly about and compete with each other.”[61] The reason people engage in deliberations is because of their differences, and the Internet allows differences to be easily found. The Internet seems the perfect place to find different views of a very diverse group of people who are at the same time open to such difference and disagreement needed for deliberation. Noelle-Neumann’s initial idea of cowering and muted citizens is difficult to reconcile with empirical studies documenting uninhibited discussion in computer-mediated contexts such as chat rooms and newsgroups.[62][63][64][65]

The Internet provides an anonymous setting, and it can be argued that in an anonymous setting, fears of isolation and humiliation would be reduced. Wallace recognized that when people believe their actions cannot be attributed to them personally, they tend to become less inhibited by social conventions and restraints. This can be very positive, particularly when people are offered the opportunity to discuss difficult personal issues under conditions in which they feel safer.[66]

The groups’ ability to taunt an individual is lessened on the Internet,[citation needed] thus reducing the tendency to conform. Wallace goes on to summarize a number of empirical studies that do find that dissenters feel more liberated to express their views online than offline, which might result from the fact that the person in the minority would not have to endure taunts or ridicule from people that are making up the majority, or be made to feel uncomfortable for having a different opinion.[67] Stromer-Galley considered that “an absence of non-verbal cues, which leads to a lowered sense of social presence, and a heightened sense of anonymity” frees people from the psychological barriers that keep them from engaging in a face-to-face deliberation.[68]

The crux of the spiral of silence is that people believe consciously or subconsciously that the expression of unpopular opinions will lead to negative repercussions. These beliefs may not exist on the Internet for several reasons. First, embarrassment and humiliation depends on the physical presence of others.[citation needed] In computer-mediated communication, physical isolation often already exists and poses no further threat.[69] Second, a great deal of normative influence is communicated through nonverbal cues, such as eye contact and gestures,[70] but computer-mediated communication typically precludes many of these cues. Third, Keisler, Siegel, and McQuire observe that nonverbal social context cues convey formality and status inequality in face-to-face communication.[71] When these cues are removed, the importance of social status as a source of influence recedes. Group hierarchies that develop in face-to-face interaction emerge less clearly in a mediated environment.[72] The form and consequences of conformity influence should undergo significant changes given the interposition of a medium that reduces the social presence of participants.[69] Social presence is defined as the degree of salience of the other person in the interaction[73] or the degree to which the medium conveys some of the person’s presence.[74]

An important issue in obtaining heterogeneity in conversation is equal access for all the participants and equal opportunities to influence in the discussion. When people believe they are ignorant about a topic, incapable to participate in a discussion or not equal to their peers, they tend to not even become involved in a deliberation. When people do decide to participate, their participation might be overruled by dominant others, or their contribution might be valued less or more, depending on their status.[69]Dahlberg praises the Internet for its possibility to liberate people from the social hierarchies and power relations that exist offline: “The ‘blindness’ of cyberspace to bodily identity… [is supposed to allow] people to interact as if they were equals. Arguments are said to be assessed by the value of the claims themselves and not the social position of the poster”.[75]

Gastil sees this feature as one of the strongest points of the Internet: “if computer-mediated interaction can consistently reduce the independent influence of status, it will have a powerful advantage over face-to-face deliberation”.[76] While status cues are difficult to detect, perceptions about the status converge, and this lessens stereotyping and prejudice.[67]

It may be that people do feel more equal in online forums than they feel offline. Racism, ageism, and other kinds of discrimination against out groups “seems to be diminishing because the cues to out-group status are not as obvious”.[77] Next to this, the Internet has rapidly and dramatically increased the capacities to develop, shareand organize information,[78] realizing more equality of access to information.[79]

The relationship between the perception of public opinion and willingness to speak-up is mainly measured through surveys[80] In surveys, respondents are often asked whether they would reveal their opinions given a hypothetical situation, right after their opinions about the public opinion and their opinion is received. Whether asking hypothetical questions can reflect real life cases was questioned by some communication scholars, leading to a criticism of this methodology as not being able to capture what the respondent would do in a real-life situation.[81] A research study addressed this criticism by comparatively testing a spiral model both in a hypothetical survey and in a focus group.[81] The findings are in line with the critic of hypothetical survey questions, demonstrating a significant increase in the spiral of silence in focus groups.[81]

Among different approaches to survey methodology, cross-sectional study design is the leading method employed to analyze and test the theory.[80] Cross-sectional design involves the analysis of the relationship between public opinion and willingness to speak at one point in time.[80]

While many of the researchers employ cross-sectional design, some scholars employed panel data.[82] Under this methodology, three specific approaches have been used. Noelle-Neumann herself tested the theory from the aggregate level. Using this approach, the change process is “observed by comparing the absolute share of people perceiving a majority climate with people willing to express their views over time.”[83] The second approach that has been used in Spiral of Silence research is conducting separate regressions for each panel survey wave. The drawback for this approach is that the individual change of climate and opinions perception is ignored.[83] The last approach a few scholars used in conducting Spiral of Silence researches is to use changed scores as dependent variables. However, as intuitive as this approach may be, it “leads to well-documented difficulties with respect to statistical properties, such as regression to the mean or the negative correlation of the change score with the time one state”.[83]

The critics of this theory most often claim that individuals have different influences that affect whether they speak out or not.

Research indicates that people fear isolation in their small social circles more than they do in the population at large. Within a large nation, one can always find a group of people who share one’s opinions, however people fear isolation from their close family and friends more in theory. Research has demonstrated that this fear of isolation is stronger than the fear of being isolated from the entire public, as it is typically measured.[84]

Scholars have also argued that both personal characteristics and various culture among different groups will have influences on whether a person will willingly speak out. If one person “has a positive self-concept and lacks a sense of shame, that person will speak out regardless of how she or he perceives the climate of public opinion.”[85]Another influence critics give for people choosing not to speak out against public opinion is culture. Open expression of ideas is forbidden in some of the cultures.[85]Some cultures are more individualistic, which would support more of an individual’s own opinion, while collectivist cultures support the overall group’s opinion and needs. Gender can be also considered as a cultural factor. In some cultures, women’s “perception of language, not public opinion, forces them to remain quiet.”[85] Scheufele & Moy, further assert that certain conflict styles and cultural indicators should be used to understand these differences.[21]

Another criticism of the spiral of silence research is that the research designs do not observe the movement in the spiral over time. Critics propose that Noelle-Neumann’s emphasis on time[8] in the formation of the spiral should reflect on the methodology as well, and the dynamic nature of the spiral model should be acknowledged. They argue that the spiral of silence theory involves a “time factor”, considering that the changes in public opinion eventually lead to change in people’s assessments of the public opinion.[83] Also, according to Spilchal, the spiral of silence theory “ignores the evidence of the historical development of public opinion, both in theory and practice, through the extension of suffrage, organisation of political propaganda groups, the establishment of pressure groups and political parties, the eligibility of ever wider circles of public officials and, eventually, the installation of several forms of direct democracy.”[86]

Some scholars also provide understandings of the theory in the contemporary society by pointing out that “it is not so much the actual statistical majority that generates pressure for conformity as it is the climate of opinion conveyed in large measure by the media.”[9] Under the great influence by the media coverage, the climate of opinion “is not invariably an accurate reflection of the distribution of opinions within the polity.”[9]

Further, Scheufele & Moy[21] find problems in the operationalization of key terms, including willingness to speak out. This construct should be measured in terms of actually speaking out, not voting or other conceptually similar constructs. Conformity experiments have no moral component, yet morality is a key construct in the model. These conformity experiments, particularly those by Asch, form part of the base of the theory. Scholars question whether these conformity experiments are relevant to the development of the Spiral of Silence.[21]

Research indicates that while the existence of groups with other opinions than those that are supposed to be dominant in a society opens a possibility for some people to express some different opinions, fallacy assumptions in such groups that criticism of particular aspects of that group’s program is support for society’s mainstream views is a source of false dilemmas. This research indicates that such false dilemmas, especially when there are inconsistencies both in mainstream views and in organized opposition views, causes a spiral of silence that specifically silences logically consistent third, fourth or higher number viewpoint criticism. The research in question does not find a solution in many approaches of “recognizing cognitive bias” but instead indicate that such assumptions are part of the problem by promoting the myth of one’s own group having overcome its bias by institutional means and allegations of rational critical arguments being due to bias in the minds of critics, citing evolutionary research that shows that not only would any predisposition for justification of views be selected against due to costing nutrients without improving adaptivity of behavior, but that the claim that most adult humans are irrational due to missing stimulation of rationality in early childhood is also evolutionarily indefensible as genes for potential rationality would have been totally eliminated by selection before reaching significant population fraction if they needed a society already promoting rationality to manifest themselves adaptively. The research indicates that humans are not inherently irrational but are forced to pretend irrationality by false dilemmas that claim rational criticism to be justifications for irrational resentment, and suggest that openly expressed rationality can be promoted by discussions in which no exclusion based on traditional political scales or beneficiary classifications exist but all allegations of irrational motives as well as assumptions that some opinions are linked or that criticism of one view is defence of another specific view are excluded.[87][88]

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