'Self-Silencing' Is a Problem and It's Destroying Our Politics


“Self-silencing” is people saying what they think others want to hear rather than what they truly believe. And it’s causing what one researcher calls “false polarization.”


In other words, there’s more agreement between Americans than we’re given to believe by polls that use responders who are self-silencing. The importance of this is that people’s actual views are what drive consumer and social behavior — not their stated views.

“When we’re misreading what we all think, it actually causes false polarization,” said Todd Rose, co-founder and president of Populace, the firm that conducted the study. “It actually destroys social trust. And it tends to historically make social progress all but impossible.”


People are often more moderate than they’ll readily admit when “being pulled toward a vocal fringe,” whether left or right, Rose said.

But in some cases, he said, people reshape their privately held views to conform to what they think their group believes, even if that assessment is inaccurate.

The gap between real and stated views can have a generational impact, he said, because media amplifies perceptions that then cue young adults: “This generation’s illusions tend to become next generation’s private opinion.”

There are some real shockers in this study on both the right and left.

On abortion, the study found men are much less likely to privately agree with the idea that the choice to have an abortion should be left solely to a woman and her doctor (45%) than would say so publicly (60%).

Republicans, meanwhile, were less likely to privately say Roe v. Wade should be overturned (51%) than publicly (64%).

On COVID-19, only 44% of women privately feel wearing masks was effective at stopping COVID-19 spread, though 63% felt they should say they did.

An astonishing four times as many Democrats say CEOs should take a public stand on social issues (44%) than actually care (11%).

On education, Americans overall are privately more supportive of parents having more influence over curriculum (60%) than proclaim this publicly (52%).

That may help explain why GOP Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s messaging on schools appealed to swing voters in Virginia last year, and why GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) championed “parents’ rights” in signing prohibitions on classroom instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity.


Axios explains the unique methodology of the survey.

Respondents were provided a mix of traditional polling questions and other questions using a list experiment method, or item-count technique, that provides them with a greater sense of anonymity. This process allows researchers to find the gap between what people say versus how they privately feel.

Are parents really opposed to discussing gender issues in kindergarten through third grade, as the Florida law stipulates?  Only about half the parents privately think so, compared to 63 percent who tell pollsters they oppose it.

As far as racism being taught in schools, 63% of Republicans privately said they believed racism was too much of a focus in public schools which is a lot lower than the 80 percent who say so publicly.

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Pollsters confess to being flummoxed by the problem of people saying one thing to them while believing something else. They try all sorts of gimmicks to weed out responses that aren’t what people actually think. But the American people have become far more sophisticated about polls in recent decades. This has led to people not only refusing to trust polls but also refusing to participate in the surveys.

All of this has skewed our poll-driven politics and may have contributed to our disunity. And that’s dangerous for the future of our republic.



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