The Need for Healthy Dissent: Standing Out and Breaking the Spiral of Silence

dissent


Human beings are very social creatures and we often depend on social approval to feel liked and accepted.

This is generally a good thing as this “desire for approval” is what allows us to create bonds with one another, cultivate trust, and cooperate together to achieve things that we never could on our own.

At the same time, this desire for approval can also create conformity to unhealthy standards or norms.

Blind conformity stops us from thinking for ourselves. One common example of this is having friends that all wear Nike shoes, so we decide to get a pair of Nike shoes for ourselves in order to “fit in.”

We don’t necessarily buy the shoes because we like them and think they are the best, we buy them to be accepted and approved by our peers.

That’s a trivial example, but the same mechanism applies to all other areas of our lives: politics, religion, culture, fashion, hobbies, and other social norms.

Everything we do, say, and think is at least partly influenced by social pressures.

However, sometimes we need to resist these social pressures, especially when we are defending something that we truly believe is right – even if it happens to be very unpopular.

When this happens, it’s important we recognize the need for dissent and be willing to step-out-of-line when appropriate. This can be so important for getting society to continue to evolve and move forward.


The Need for Dissent

When it comes to studies on conformity, one of the most popular topics in psychology is the Asch Conformity Experiment.

In this study, participants were asked to compare a line with three other lines (labeled “A,” “B,” and “C”) and then determine which one matched the best.

Here’s an example of what participants would see:

In this example, the line that best matches is “C.”

However, the trick behind the experiment was that the room was filled with confederates (those who were “in” on the experiment) and only one actual participant.

Sometimes the confederates would purposefully give wrong answers to see how the participant would respond.

Results showed that even when the confederates chose an obviously wrong answer, the participants were more likely to conform to that answer even if they didn’t agree with it.

This is the power of conformity. People would rather “fit in” with the group rather than stand out, even when they know they are right.

But most interestingly, it was found that when just one confederate gave the correct answer, the participant was more likely to go against popular opinion and choose the answer they knew to be right.

All it takes is one person to dissent to give other people permission to do the same. We just need that one person to stand out and say “You’re not alone” to make us more comfortable being true to ourselves.

Here’s what happens when one person dissents:

As the video mentions, the unanimity is what makes the social pressures so strong. But when the consensus is broken – and just one person stands out – that can begin to break up the blind conformity.

This has tremendous implications for things like politics, religion, and culture – because it shows that even just one act of dissent can become the start of a much bigger change in our social fabric.


Being Too Polite and Agreeable

Whether or not we choose to dissent can depend a lot on our individual personalities.

Some people are naturally very agreeable and polite and they would rather not rock the boat, while other people are more comfortable stepping out-of-line and standing out from the crowd.

Another popular study into conformity is the famous Milgram experiment, where participants are asked to administer electric shocks to other participants whenever they get an answer wrong on a test. (Participants weren’t really being shocked, but from the perspective of participants they were).

For every answer the person gets wrong, the participant is told to send a stronger and stronger “electrical shock.” The experimenters would even play recordings of a person crying out in pain and asking to stop the experiment to make it seem more real.

The goal of the study was to see how many people would obey the rules of the experiment and continue administering the shocks. The original results showed that an alarmingly high percentage of people would continue the experiment all the way to the end (even when being told to administer shocks that are labeled “very dangerous”).

In a recent version of this study published in The Journal of Personality, researchers looked into what personality differences might contribute to this obedience to authority.

What they found was that individuals who ranked high on “agreeableness” were more likely to obey authority and continue with the experiment until the end.

People that are “too agreeable” and “too nice” are more likely to blindly follow authority because they don’t want to upset anyone. In this sense, being comfortable with disagreeing plays a huge role in allowing people to disobey unjust authority.

Of course, there’s a thin line between rightfully disagreeing with someone and being an asshole. People that always need to disagree or disobey will quickly find themselves alienating people and isolating themselves from their peers.

At the same time, knowing when to choose your battles can be very important. No one wants to isolate themselves, but we still need healthy dissent to keep society moving forward and fight against social norms that we find wrong or destructive.


The Spiral of Silence

There’s an interesting theory in social science known as “the spiral of silence,” developed by German political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann in the 1970s.

In her classic book The Spiral of Silence: Public Opinion – Our Social Skin, she describes how our perception of public opinion through news and media can give the false impression that certain beliefs and attitudes are more unpopular than they really are.

Based on this false impression from the media and popular culture, a person may not speak out their true views because they feel that their views are too unpopular and outside of the mainstream to be taken seriously.

This only leads to a “spiral of silence,” because individuals will fear social isolation and not want to speak their views, which only leads to more and more people believing their views are unpopular.

Here’s a diagram of the “spiral of silence”:

dissent

As you can see, both pressures from the mainstream media and personal relationships push a person to become less and less likely to express their opinions.

This can happen even when a view is not actually unpopular, but only seems unpopular because it has become taboo to talk about. This is where the idea of a “silent majority” comes from – when a belief is actually held by most people, but no one actually speaks it out loud.

This is why we need healthy dissent in our culture. Because when individuals decide to dissent, they may discover that their views are more popular than they originally thought. This encourages other people with similar views to begin expressing themselves as well.

It’s only when people feel free and comfortable to express themselves that we can begin to have healthy debate and dialogue about controversial issues.

Without dissent in our society, we cut off communication and limit our understanding of other people’s point-of-views. Ultimately, we limit ourselves from being able to solve the really tough problems that exist in our world.


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