Spiral of silence

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Spiral of silence is part of the theory of public opinion formulated by Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann in the 1970s . Accordingly, the willingness of many people to publicly express their opinion depends on the assessment of the climate of opinion. If one's own opinion contradicts the opinion considered to be predominant, there are inhibitions to express it, and the stronger the more pronounced the opposition becomes; hence the concept of the spiral. The mass media , especially television , can exert a considerable influence on the recipients and thus on public opinion by presenting a certain opinion to the individual as an alleged majority opinion and thus putting him under pressure not to express himself otherwise. The spiral of silence thus stands for a renewed turn in media impact research to the “ fourth power ”, a hypothesis of the “powerful media”. Stefan Gürtler dismissed following a study by the University of Applied Sciences Northwestern Switzerland at the risk of a spiral of silence on the social network of Twitter back when by bots a majority feeling is suggested.


The central assumptions of the spiral of silence are the following:

  1. Most people feel “fear of isolation” and do not want to be socially isolated (“social nature of man”).
  2. People constantly get a picture of the distribution of opinions in the public and of the development of these distributions (by means of a "quasi-statistical organ of perception").
  3. The willingness to present one's views publicly varies, depending on the distribution of opinions perceived by the individual and the expected development of opinions in society. People who have the impression that the spread of their opinion is on the rise or that they already correspond to the majority opinion are more willing to express themselves in public. They are more likely to express their opinion publicly through expressions of opinion, behavior or symbols than those who believe that their opinion belongs to the losers or to the minority. The minority faction falls into silence for fear of isolating itself socially. This makes the group of the former appear even stronger and in a spiral process this opinion seems to become the dominant one - without actually having to be.
  4. People's perception of which opinions are predominant (or will be in the future) is largely determined by the opinions and arguments represented in the mass media .
  5. A prerequisite for the occurrence of a spiral of silence is that the subject, the topic of the opinion struggle, is “morally charged”, i.e. has the emotional potential to make the opinion of the minority appear not to be rationally wrong , but morally bad .

One function of the mass media in this process is that (in the case of the classic spiral of silence, in which an actual minority appears publicly as a majority) the factual minority opinion (minority opinion) is presented by the media in parallel and cumulatively as a majority opinion . Afraid of being isolated, followers of the majority opinion fail to express their opinion publicly. Noelle-Neumann attributes this to the social nature of people, which makes them fear isolation and subjects each individual to pressure to conform , i.e. pressure to adapt. For this reason, everyone is constantly occupied with observing their environment ("process of the quasi-statistical perception of public opinion"). In this way he learns which opinions and attitudes can be expressed publicly without having to fear sanctions ( striving for consonance ). For the process of the spiral of silence, this means that the supposed minority opinion (i.e. the genuine majority opinion) becomes an actual minority opinion over time, since as the supporters of the actual majority opinion fall silent, the supporters of the actual minority opinion are encouraged to publicize their views to express without fear of isolation. In this way, there can actually be a change in public opinion.

Modern mass media are not a prerequisite for the emergence of a spiral of silence, but they certainly intensify and accelerate the effects that arise from fear of isolation. However, fear of isolation can also be observed in “mass media-free” societies. For example, contemporary moral principles that nobody wants to violate publicly for fear of being avoided pose a threat to isolation. Noelle-Neumann on this:

“Public opinion is based on the desire of people living in an association to come to a common judgment, to reach agreement on what is necessary to act and, if necessary, to be able to decide. Conformity is rewarded, violations of the concordant judgment are punished. "


The theory of the spiral of silence arose on the basis of an observation that Noelle-Neumann made in the federal election campaigns first in 1965 and then in 1972: According to representative surveys by the Allensbach Institute for Demoskopie in 1972, the two major parties SPD and CDU / CSU were on the question of personal voting intentions of the population constantly head to head, while at the same time the expectation of victory for one of the parties (SPD) increased among the respondents. Noelle-Neumann saw the reporting of the mass media as one of the reasons for one-sided changes in the climate of opinion: In a study on the 1976 federal election, 76 percent of the journalists surveyed saw the SPD and FDP as the winner, compared with just 33 percent of the adult population. The voting intentions of the journalists surveyed also differed significantly from those of the population: 79 percent of them wanted to vote for the SPD or FDP, but only 50 percent of the adult population. Noelle-Neumann sought the explanation in the climate of opinion, that is, “in the imagination of the people, which views and behaviors are approved or rejected” ( Noelle-Neumann 1989 ). Noelle-Neumann then examined her thesis in a comprehensive study of the 1976 federal election campaign, through a panel survey, normal representative surveys, two surveys among journalists and a video recording of political programs on the two television programs. As a result, she noted a high level of approval in favor of the SPD / FDP among journalists - and in the course of the year also a shift in public opinion away from the CDU / CSU towards the later election winner SPD / FDP. However, according to Noelle-Neumann, the election campaign parties had successfully fought the spiral of silence with all public means and thus achieved a balance in the climate of opinion. Accordingly, she could not prove a spiral of silence.

As a consequence, the CDU / CSU in particular campaigned for the introduction of private television in the following years in order to create a media counterweight to the supposedly left-leaning public television broadcasters. The comparatively large influence that Noelle-Neumann ascribes to television in contrast to other media is explained by its special credibility as a result of its alleged suggestiveness and authenticity. Noelle-Neumann summarizes the strong potential of television with the three terms accumulation, consonance and publicity effect.


In Germany in particular, Noelle-Neumann's theory of the spiral of silence was the subject of controversy, and there was also much criticism internationally. The main point of criticism is the lack of empirical foundation of the theory. In particular, the election analysis of 1976 was accused of not having carried out a content analysis of the television coverage and that her assessment of journalists' attitudes was probably based primarily on surveys of print journalists. The fact that only 100 journalists were interviewed is also the subject of criticism. Furthermore, no methodologically completely solid investigation of the "silent" has been proven. Other scientists were also dissatisfied with Noelle-Neumann's theoretical assumptions. It is criticized that Noelle-Neumann assumes the fear of isolation as the only determinant for the willingness to speak. Other influences such as personality attributes, sociability etc. are not included.

In summary, it emerges that the findings on the spiral of silence available so far are partly contradictory and so far not consistent. Nonetheless, it is the subject of numerous empirical studies and theoretical and methodological developments in Germany and internationally. In addition, in the area of ​​democratic theory, especially with participatory approaches such as deliberative democracy , which calls for a stronger public discourse , the points of criticism raised in the spiral of silence, for example around Asch's experiments, are relevant.

Several studies have shown that effects similar to the spiral of silence also occur on the Internet, specifically in social networks . Most people would therefore join the perceived majority opinion of their contacts. This creates a filter bubble , so "that in the end everyone wonders who these people are who vote for parties other than themselves."

Context with other theoretical approaches: third-person effect

The third-person effect as a further approach in this context describes that recipients assume a stronger media effect on third parties than on themselves. The American communication scientist Diana C. Mutz first combined the two approaches . She assumes that an assumed greater media impact on third parties leads to recipients assuming an influence on public opinion or its trend. The mass media opinion is perceived as a majority opinion. If this media opinion does not agree with one's own opinion, this can, according to the theory of the spiral of silence, reinforce a tendency to remain silent. If the media opinion agrees with one's own opinion, this leads to an increased willingness to speak or to show. In her study she was able to demonstrate both the third-person effect and a spiral of silence effect. Perceptions of media effects on third parties can cause a tendency to remain silent (in the case of incongruence) or a willingness to speak and show (in the case of congruence).


In Noelle-Neumann's work Public Opinion: The Discovery of the Spiral of Silence , the connection between the social is shown through historical research into Descartes , Rousseau , Hegel , Homer , Plato , David Hume , John Locke , Edmund Burke and other figures in literature, politics and philosophy Investigates human nature and the spiral of silence.

Comparable explanations

Similar effects were assumed in other contexts, in particular:

Social networks

In a study published in August 2014, the US polling institute Pew Research Center expressed the thesis that the "spiral of silence" also exists on Facebook and Twitter .

See also


  • Roland Burkart : Communication Science. 4th edition. Böhlau, Vienna 2002, ISBN 3-8252-2259-4 , pp. 262-269.
  • Wolfgang Donsbach : The theory of the spiral of silence. In: Michael Schenk: Media Effects Research. Mohr, Tübingen 1987, ISBN 3-16-545172-9 , pp. 324-343.
  • Dieter Fuchs et al: Willingness to communicate in public. A test of central components of the theory of the spiral of silence. In: Journal of Sociology. 21, No. 4, 1992, pp. 284-295.
  • Denis McQuail: McQuail's Mass Communication Theory. 4th edition. Sage, London 2000, ISBN 1-4129-0372-6 .
  • Elisabeth Noelle: Public Opinion and Social Control. Mohr, Tübingen 1966.
  • Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann : The spiral of silence. Public opinion - our social skin. Langen Müller, Munich 1980, ISBN 3-7844-2835-5 .
  • Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann: The theory of the spiral of silence as an instrument of media impact research . In: Cologne journal for sociology and social psychology. 1989 (special issue), pp. 418-440.
  • Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann: Public opinion: the discovery of the spiral of silence. Frankfurt am Main 1989, ISBN 3-550-06934-0 .
  • Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann: Public opinion. In: Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann u. a. (Ed.): The Fischer-Lexikon journalism, mass communication. Fischer, Frankfurt am Main 2003, ISBN 3-596-15495-2 , pp. 392-406.
  • Thomas Roessing: Public opinion - the exploration of the spiral of silence . Nomos, Baden-Baden 2009, ISBN 978-3-8329-4054-6 .
  • Helmut Scherer: Mass media, climate of opinion and attitudes: an investigation into the theory of the spiral of silence . Westdeutscher Verlag, Opladen 1990, ISBN 3-531-12160-X .
  • Hans Zetterberg: Media. Ideology and the spiral of silence. In: Jürgen Wilke (Ed.): Public opinion. Theory, methods, findings. Contributions in honor of Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann. Freiburg 1992, ISBN 3-495-47742-X , pp. 51-75.
  • Michael Jäckel : Media Effects. An introductory study book. 4th edition. Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, Wiesbaden 2007, ISBN 3-531-15391-9 .
  • Erich Lamp: The power of public opinion - and why we bow to it. About the dark side of human nature. Olzog, Munich 2009, ISBN 3-7892-8321-5 .

Individual evidence

  1. Wolfgang Donsbach, Robert L. Stevenson: Challenges, problems and empirical evidence of the theory of the spiral of silence. In: Journalism. Volume 31, 1986, pp. 7-34.
  2. ^ Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, Thomas Petersen: The Spiral of Silence and the Social Nature of Man. In: Lynda Lee Kaid (Ed.): Handbook of Political Communication. Erlbaum, Mahwah 2004, ISBN 0-8058-3775-2 , pp. 339-356.
  3. ^ Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann : The spiral of silence. Public opinion - our social skin. Langen Müller, Munich 1980, p. II.
  4. ^ Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann: The spiral of silence. Public opinion - our social skin. Langen-Müller, Munich 1980, p. 14 ff.
  5. Deisenberg, Anna Maria (1986): The spiral of silence - the reception of the model at home and abroad. Munich: Minerva publication.
  6. Helmut Scherer, Annekaryn Tiele, Teresa Naab: The theory of the spiral of silence: methodological challenges and empirical research practice. In: Werner Wirth , Andreas Fahr , Edmund Lauf (Hrsg.): Fields of application in communication science. Halem, Cologne 2006, ISBN 3-931606-54-6 ( Research Logic and Design in Communication Science. Volume 2), pp. 107-138.
  7. Julia Bähr: Who is the majority? , FAZ.net, accessed on July 12, 2015.
  8. See Michael Schenk: Media Effects Research. 3. Edition. Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen 2007, p. 555, ISBN 978-3-16-149240-2 .
  9. ^ Diana C. Mutz: The Influence of Perceptions of Media Influence: Third Person Effects and the Public Expression of Opinions. In: International Journal of Public Opinion Research 1, 1989, pp. 2-23.
  10. FAZ.net August 26, 2014: The spiral of silence rules on the internet too