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The silent majority


It’s probably happened to you. It’s certainly happened to me.

You’re at some social gathering or public event when someone says something so outrageously extreme that you can’t believe it.

The thrower of this verbal bombshell seems to assume everyone agrees with him…and since no one speaks up,  except for a couple of people who express approval, you come to the conclusion that he’s right, that you’re the odd person out, and that, therefore, “This group is more left-wing/right-wing/certifiably insane than I thought!”

Take heart: you probably aren’t as out of step with the beliefs of others in the group as you think. The person making the extreme statements may think his views are in the majority…but he’s very likely wrong.

That’s the indication of just-released research which found that people with relatively extreme opinions seem more willing to publicly share their views than those with more moderate views…and are most likely to do so when they believe most people share their views—even if they’re wrong.

To figure this out, the researchers conducted a series of studies at Stanford University, which prohibits alcohol usage in common areas of all freshmen dorms. Kimberly Rios Morrison, assistant professor of communication at Ohio State University, and Dale Miller of Stanford asked students their opinion of the policy—and found that college students who were extremely pro-alcohol were more likely to express their opinions than others, in the mistaken belief that their views were those held by the majority, probably due the stereotype that college students are very comfortable with alcohol.

In the first study, 37 students were asked to rate their views about Stanford’s policy on a scale from 1 (very strongly opposed) to 9 (very strongly in favor), and were also asked what they thought the typical Stanford student’s views would be. The students’ self-ratings showed that the average view fell near the middle of the scale—but most of the students thought the “typical” Stanford student was significantly more pro-alcohol than that.

In another study, the students rated themselves, then were asked how willing they would be to discuss their views with other students. The most pro-alcohol students were the most likely to say they wanted to express their views, compared to those with moderate or anti-alcohol views.

In yet another study, students received fake data indicating that other Stanford students held relatively conservative anti-alcohol views. In that study, the extremely pro-alcohol students who saw that data were less likely to say they were willing to discuss alcohol usage with other students.

In other words, the willingness to express an extreme view increased when students thought their opinion was in the majority.

Interestingly, anti-alcohol students still weren’t as willing to express their views even when given the fake data indicating most students agreed with them…possibly, the researchers think, because their view that they’re in the minority, so thoroughly entrenched in a popular culture that takes for granted heavy alcohol use among college students, couldn’t be shaken by one experiment.

Extrapolating, the researchers believe the same thing may happen in larger communities. A community that’s generally moderate politically but leans slightly left may find that people with extremely left-wing views are more likely to attend protests, display bumper stickers, and similarly make their feelings known, because they feel the community supports them.

The same thing could happen in the other direction with a moderate community that leans slightly right (although since there’s a much greater willingness to participate in protests and highly visible political actions on the left than the right, I suspect it’s less likely).

This can become a cycle that feeds on itself. The more you hear extremists expressing their opinions, the more likely you are going to believe that those extreme beliefs are common in your community…leaving you more likely to express those beliefs yourself if you share them, or more likely to remain silent if you don’t.

All of which leads to that moment at a dinner party when someone calls everyone of a different political stripe “fascists,” thereby insulting half the group, because it never crossed the name-caller’s mind that anyone intelligent and sane could possibly disagree with him.

The “silent majority” may be a cliché—but sometimes, at least, it’s also reality.

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1 comment

  1. Well, I have not problem with expressing my opinions regarding low carb diets being a bunch of garbage flogged by unscrupulous snake oil salesmen on an unsuspecting public, even though it often gets many pro low-carbers to jump all over me.

    The reason why I feel free to do this is that I know that the majority of Registered Dieticians agree with me – even though they may not be in the room at the time.

    So, yes, this makes sense.

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