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While it is romantic to imagine an outspoken hero rising from the ranks of an angry mob, the scenario is unlikely. People tend to act collectively, even when individuals within the group have differing beliefs. The spiral of silence is a psychological and sociological theory that attempts to explain why humans will frequently not express opinions that are contrary to popularly held beliefs.
The theory of the spiral of silence presumes that an individual is correctly aware of public opinion and has the desire for acceptance. A person’s judgment of prevailing thought seems to be largely innate. In essence, that individual knows how other members of the group feel about an issue without the opinion ever being voiced. Those who feel differently are unlikely to express their personal beliefs for fear of being excluded from the group.
In many ways, the spiral of silence can be likened to the bystander effect. Although the bystander effect is applied to situations where a physical response is necessary, both behaviors include a diffusion of responsibility. In short, individuals are less likely to respond, by voice or action, to a situation when others are around. There is speculation to the cause of this diffusion. Some believe that an individual is less compelled to respond when others are around that are capable of doing it; others believe that humans feel the need to respond in the same way as the other members of the group.
It is not uncommon for groups to establish conventions to which the majority of members disagree. Like the spiral of silence, the theory of pluralistic ignorance addresses individuals that are unlikely to go against the group. In this situation, however, most other members of the group secretly disagree with the perceived opinion. The fear of social reprisal produces a silent majority. When these types of groups are led by a strong personality, destructive mob behavior can occur.
Historically, collective behavior has been limited to isolated clusters of individuals or communities. As mass media has developed, however, large numbers of people are being exposed to established public opinions. In these instances, news coverage often acts as a surrogate group leader. Whole populations are now subject to the formation of collective thought.
Scenarios like the spiral of silence are more likely in areas with strong, well-defined customs and norms. In these areas, conformism is often necessary as group behavior ensures the successful continuation of an established way of life. For communities where individual and cultural diversity is encouraged, there is less need for a collective consciousness.
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