Breaking the Spiral of Silence - Yihong Huang

The Spiral of Silence theory plays a crucial role in contemporary political discourse. According to this idea, people who hold perceived socially inappropriate views self-censor, generating a distribution of expressed views that is skewed towards appropriate opinions. If the attention paid to silence is limited, this can exacerbate self-censorship and create an equilibrium where only socially appropriate views are expressed and considered dominant. We experimentally test this hypothesis based on a simple model in which self-censorship and limited attention to silence interact to jointly establish equilibrium norms. In our experiment, UC Berkeley undergraduates discuss controversial political and socioeconomic issues. Students with socially inappropriate views self-censor to a significant degree. Given the limited attention students pay to silence, self-censorship amplifies over time. We experimentally increase the salience of silence and show that this affects both beliefs about others’ views and public expression decisions. Because inference and expression amplify each other, different levels of attention to silence can produce divergent perceived social norms in equilibrium.

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