Spiral of Silence: Why do we let others tell us how to vote?

Mohamed Fallah
Mar 11, 2016 · 5 min read

In my 23 years of life on this planet, i have come to accept a few things as being undoubtedly true; the earth revolves around the sun, the value of a currency dictates the economy, and we will always have political problems. However, views on other things in life are always changing, our ideas on values and beliefs, religious thoughts, and political beliefs. These changes are usually based on influence, or rather, how we tell ourselves to act based on perceptions of the world around us. The idea of influence has been studied academically for quite some time, with different areas of focus such as social influence, political influence, and behavioral influence. What hasn’t been studied and understood very much however, is the idea that the what we may believe to be a dominant view on something, will cause us to conform and accept it as reality.

Noelle-Neumann’s spiral of silence

This idea has been called in academic circle as the Spiral of Silence (SOS, because we really need help) which is a theory that basically says that people who feel their opinion as being an oppositional minority to the majority view will remain silent. This theory was originally created by a German scholar called Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann. What is quite interesting is that the main idea of this theory is actually how a lot of us end up coming to a decision when deciding who to vote for. The entirety of an election is usually covered on most media and online platforms with each channel saying the same, or similar things about election. In these cases, the media help to perpetuate the dominant opinion which silences opposition. In recent example, the 2016 USA primaries have been so entertaining, strange, and influential that people who would otherwise not be contributing to political realities have shown interest in large numbers. What this means is that, the media and ‘pundits’ push stories and political ideas to us, and these ideas are reinforced and strengthened when we see people buying in. It truly is a rigged system and takes some type of uncorruptable meddle to avoid being influenced to voting one way or another.

CAB voter decision table shows TV has the biggest influence on voter decisions

If you are under the impression that your voting choice is not really influenced, then you need to take a step back and understand the idea of political elections. The election is a competition, one that is disseminated almost as a game, where two or more competing groups try to gain the prize (holding office). Regular people as decision makers in this ‘game’ are then catered to and targeted specifically in order to secure their vote. The biggest source of talking and catering to the targeted voters a politician has is the media, particularly television and magazines. In 2013 study conducted by the Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau shows that nearly one 1 in 3 of all registered voters studied were influenced the most to vote a certain way through the television. What this tells us is that, the media has a strong influence on voter decision making.

That’s all fair and good but how exactly does this relate to the spiral of silence? Well television and the media serve as the tools that pass along the dominant beliefs that are theorized in the SOS theory. This means that regular people are being fed the ‘dominant’, or the ‘loudest’, beliefs and when they do not show any opposition to them, and in turn, conform to them they are falling in the spiral of silence. If CNN makes it mission to cover a presidential candidates past personal mistakes for a week or so and says these mistakes are of someone who isn’t ready to be leader, you will see many regular people begin to adopt this belief as a shortcoming of that candidate.

As to explaining why regular people let this conformity happen with something as important as voting; some answers can be found be looking at ideas from Albert Bandura. Bandura is a psychologist who thought a very interesting theory called social learning theory (SLT). Under this theory, Bandura claimed that people will behave one way over another based on social situations and their perceptions of them. Specifically, the theory says that a person’s personal beliefs, their surrounding environment, and their belief of their skill will influence the type of behavior they take. In terms of why we vote for the people we are told to vote for, the SLT says that it has to do with our personal factors, environment and skills. For example, my personal factors with regards to voting are that I want to pick the candidate that will be best suited for governing the entire country, so if a lot of people favor one guy over another, chances are that is the one i will consider more. The environmental factors that can help influence me are the ‘dominant’ ideas shown the media; stating that one guy has 65% projection to win for example. The skills aspect comes down to the belief that I am not exactly an expert in politics to the point where I can make a good decision without consulting other views. With all these three aspects complimenting each other, my logical behavior is to choose to vote for the candidate that the majority of others in my society, or community, are leaning towards.This is how the rationale of choosing to vote for candidate A over candidate B is taken in the social learning theory.

Looking at the spiral of silence and social learning helps us to better understand why we choose to vote for the ‘dominant’ or most popular option as opposed to the best option for us. Needless to say, this does not mean that all voters are influenced directly in this way, but there are many who are. Particularly the voters who are not always following or up to date on the political goings on throughout the year. So in essence, what needs to happen to break the spiral of silence are activities that encourage seeking knowledge and challenge the ideas and issues covered in the media and other digital sources.

Opinion leaders, influence and communication technology

A collection from graduate students at the University of Ottawa

Mohamed Fallah

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Opinion leaders, influence and communication technology

A collection from graduate students at the University of Ottawa