Inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” researchers Rob Willer, Ko Kuwabara and Michael Macy devised a set of ingenious experiments that showed how distressingly easy it is to make people go against what they believe to be true.
One of the experiments involved wine-tasting, in which participants evaluate both the wine and one another’s wine-tasting skills. The participants were given three samples of wine. In reality, all three samples were from the same bottle. One had even been tainted with vinegar!
Before they delivered their evaluation, they listened to other participants, who were plants, who praised the vinegar-laced wine as the best. Half of the participants went against their own taste buds and joined in praising the vinegary concoction.
Even more interesting is what happened next. Another participant, who was also a plant, told the truth about the wines. But when it came time for the participants to evaluate each other, some of them were permitted to do so confidentially, and the others had to do so publicly.
The ones who gave their evaluations confidentially praised the truth-teller. But those who had to evaluate the truth-teller publicly actually turned on him and gave him low marks.
The researchers call this phenomenon “false enforcement,” which they define as “the public enforcement of a norm that is not privately endorsed.”
What sustains the norm isn’t its popularity, much less its validity, but instead the desire to “avoid a negative social judgment from one’s peers,” according to the report. Important words.
And the desire to “avoid a negative social judgment” feeds what German sociologist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann called the “spiral of silence.”
Simply stated, out of a desire to avoid reprisal or isolation, people go along with what they think is the popular opinion — even if they object to that opinion personally. Instead of voicing their objections, they remain silent.
That’s precisely what’s happening in the debate over so-called same-sex marriage. Actually, “debate” is a misnomer. There’s no lack of evidence indicating that most Americans oppose it: Every time the question has been put on the ballot, voters have upheld the traditional definition of marriage.
Yet to voice that private opinion in public is to be subjected to a real-life version of what happened to the wine-tasters: An almost-universal chorus of people telling you that any “right-thinking” person favors so-called same-sex marriage, and that those who don’t are homophobes and bigots.
The result is the “spiral of silence.” People keep their supposedly wrong-thinking opinions to themselves, which, in turn, reinforces the impression that same-sex marriage is inevitable.
The good news is these kinds of spirals are fragile: Once exposed, they unravel. All it takes is someone like the little boy in Andersen’s fable to pipe up and say, “Hey, the emperor has no clothes!”
I talk more about the spiral of silence on today’s "Two-Minute Warning," which I urge you to go watch at Colson Center.org.
Folks, listen, we have got to speak up. We have got to break the spiral of silence.
Chuck Colson's daily BreakPoint commentary airs each weekday on more than one thousand outlets with an estimated listening audience of one million people. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends via radio, interactive media and print.
Publication date: November 2, 2011