formation of public opinion

History and Orientation

Neumann (1974) introduced the “spiral of silence” as an attempt to explain in part how public opinion is formed. She wondered why the Germans supported wrong political positions that led to national defeat, humiliation and ruin in the 1930s-1940s.

Core Assumptions and Statements

The phrase "spiral of silence" actually refers to how people tend to remain silent when they feel that their views are in the minority. The model is based on three premises: 1) people have a "quasi-statistical organ," a sixth-sense if you will, which allows them to know the prevailing public opinion, even without access to polls, 2) people have a fear of isolation and know what behaviors will increase their likelihood of being socially isolated, and 3) people are reticent to express their minority views, primarily out of fear of being isolated.

The closer a person believes the opinion held is similar to the prevailing public opinion, the more they are willing to openly disclose that opinion in public. Then, if public sentiment changes, the person will recognize that the opinion is less in favor and will be less willing to express that opinion publicly. As the perceived distance between public opinion and a person's personal opinion grows, the more unlikely the person is to express their opinion.

Conceptual Model

Source: Noelle-Neumann (1991).

Favorite Methods

To be added.

Scope and Application

It is related to the mass media, in such a way that mass media influences public opinion. Shifts in public opinion occur commonly and therefore this theory is used to search an explanation for behavior (speak up or stay silent).

The theory has also been criticized for ambiguity and methodological weakness, but the idea has persisted. Evidence of the spiral effect is usually small but significant.


This example shows an effect of the theory where during the 1991 Gulf War the U.S. support for the war was measured. Either it is a consensus view or did media coverage contribute to a spiral of silence that dampened opposition to the war? In a survey that asked about people’s opinions, respondents were clearly less supportive of the war than the popular support depicted by the media. Those who watched television and perceived that the public supported the war, were more likely tot support the war themselves. This study supports the spiral of silence and suggests that people are swayed by bandwagon effects rather than fearing social isolation.


Key publications

  • Glynn, J.C., Hayes, F.A. & Shanahan, J. (1997). “Perceived support for ones opinions sand willingness to speak out: A meta-analysis of survey studies on the ‘spiral of silence’” Public Opinion Quarterly 61 (3):452-463.
  • Glynn, J.C. & McLeod, J. (1984). “Public opinion du jour: An examination of the spiral of silence, “ Public Opinion Quarterly 48 (4):731-740.
  • Noelle-Neumann, E. (1984). The Spiral of Silence: Public Opinion -- Our social skin. Chicago: University of Chicago.
  • Noelle-Neumann, E. (1991). The theory of public opinion: The concept of the Spiral of Silence. In J. A. Anderson (Ed.), Communication Yearbook 14, 256-287. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
  • Simpson, C. (1996). “Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann’s ‘spiral of silence’ and the historical context of communication theory.” Journal of Communication 46 (3):149-173.
  • Taylor, D.G. (1982). “Pluralistic ignorance and the spiral of silence: A formal analysis,” Public Opinion Quarterly 46 (3):311-335. See also: Kennamer, J.D. (1990). “Self-serving biases in perceiving the opinions of others: Implications for the spiral of silence,” Communication Research 17 (3):393-404; Yassin Ahmed Lashin (1984). Testing the spiral of silence hypothesis: Toward an integrated theory of public opinion. Unpublished dissertation, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

See Mass Media, Media, Culture and Society