Art As Res Publicae: Perceptions of the Opinion Climate and Deliberative Discussion

Natalie Pang

June 23, 2017

Artwork by Garcon Design Easy Resize.com

Artwork by Garçon Design

A common problem associated with many traditional forms of public opinion polls is the lack of opportunity to engage citizens in issues and questions of public interest; hence creating what Professor James S. Fishkin from Stanford University described in 2006 as ‘phantom opinions’. In response to this problem, Fishkin offered the idea of deliberative polling, which combines the opinion poll with deliberation activities to offer insights into what public opinions may look like when people are given a chance to become more well-informed on a particular topic through: 1) access to relevant and factual background information, 2) conversations with one another so as to consider different opinions and their rationales, and 3) interactions with experts with competing perspectives. 

Central to deliberative polling is the ability of participants to engage one another and experts during deliberation. This requires participants to pose hard questions to one another and the experts, and express opinions that may be different from the majority opinion in the room. The latter is particularly challenging, as it requires individuals to not only evaluate the opinions of others in their immediate communication environment, but also to resist the option of staying silent when they have a different opinion. 

The Spiral of Silence (SoS) theory proposed by Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann explains the phenomenon of why some individuals or groups stay silent especially when they have a divergent opinion. In this theory, opinion expression is dependent on two factors related to the individual: the opinion climate and a fear of isolation. If individuals perceive that their opinion is congruent with the opinion climate, as in, if they hold a majority-held and popular opinion, they are more likely to express them. If they perceive their opinions to be incongruent with the opinion climate in the sense that their views are divergent or unpopular, they are more likely to remain silent. This is moderated by the second factor, fear of isolation, which refers to the extent to which an individual fear of being isolated from society or their social networks. An individual with a high fear of isolation is less likely to express a divergent opinion; whereas someone with a low fear of isolation is more likely to speak up even when his or her opinion is unpopular. 

Speaking up is extremely important because when most individuals with divergent opinions remain silent, perceptions of the opinion climate begin to shift – and an opinion which may have only been marginally popular gets reinforced over time and become perceived as the dominant and majority opinion. The evaluation of opinion climate is another key factor at play here. Some individuals are more vocal and can dominate or persuade others, whether consciously or unconsciously, to shift towards their own opinions. Opinion leaders who are perceived to have ‘expert’ or authoritative opinions can also influence the opinion climate. The framing and positioning of facts, information and stories communicated by experts and media can also direct how people think about issues. Additionally, many research studies have now proven that individuals have the ability to perceive multiple opinion climates; meaning that one may have an opinion that is perceived to be different from his/her immediate social network, community or interest group, and also the wider society. So an individual will assess the opinion climate at various levels before reacting accordingly.

The immediate opinion climate in which participants are engaging on a particular topic matters as it is the most direct context where opinions can be expressed. It could be a town hall meeting, an informal chat with friends at a coffee shop or a public forum. Regardless, communication settings in this environment must be established such that participants – especially if they are not familiar with one another – feel safe enough to express divergent opinions even if they have a high fear of isolation. They need to have a reasonable level of trust that they will not suffer the consequences of expressing divergent opinions. Deliberative polling can potentially offer this assurance, as the very objective of the exercise is to gather diverse perspectives and formulate well-informed opinions. With these goals in mind, participants understand that the more diverse perspectives there are, the richer and deeper the discourse. A successful deliberative polling exercise depends on this. 

Participants may not always change their opinions, and it is not the purpose of deliberative polling to achieve such an outcome. But it is the goal that, regardless of the eventual opinion after deliberation, participants are more informed about the bases of their opinions and embrace a greater understanding of opinions different from their own. In battling issues that polarise and divide a society, a deliberative polling exercise is perhaps where it matters most. 

Further reading: 
Fishkin, J.S.; Luskin, R.C.; Jowell, R. (2000). “Deliberative Polling and Public Consultation”. Parliamentary Affairs. 53 (4): 657–666.
Noelle-Neumann, Elisabeth (1993). The Spiral of Silence: Public Opinion, Our Social Skin. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Pang, N., Ho, S., Zhang, A., Ko, J., Low, W.X., Tan, K. (2016). “Can spiral of silence and civility predict click speech on Facebook?”. Computers in Human Behavior, 64, 898-905.

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  • 2017