The Pollster & the Nazis
How do we come to form our views, individually and collectively? This question bemused ancient philosophers, and continues to fascinate contemporary students of public opinion. In the last few years, no theory on this topic has been more widely discussed than that of the “spiral of silence,” advanced in a book by that name, subtitled “Public Opinion—Our Social Skin,” by Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann-Maier-Leibnitz.1 The author is Germany’s leading pollster, a prominent adviser to Chancellor Helmut Kohl, and the 1990 winner of the Helen Dinerman Award (for outstanding contributions to research methodology) of the World Association for Public Opinion Research. Her book, originally published in Germany in 1980, has just appeared there in a new edition.
Noelle’s thesis is that public opinion tends to conform to whatever is generally supposed to be the majority view on an issue, since those who already hold that view feel comfortable in expressing it, while those who think otherwise are reluctant to speak up. This same hypothesis was advanced in 1968 by Gary Schulman, but he unfortunately neglected to give it a memorable label, and has not won any awards for it. The “bandwagon effect” is, in fact, a long-familiar and much-studied phenomenon in public-opinion research.
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