Written by Neel Shah

Edited by Andrew Neff

August 2019

Vocal Minorities

Different in a good way

Throughout history, minority groups have been subject to social exclusion and persecution for being different. Whether this has been via the lens of race, gender, sexuality, disability or for the focus of this article: political belief. Yet not all minority groups are silent and some minorities are far more vocal. So why are some minorities more vocal than others and what creates the conditions for this?

Previous research on minority groups has told us that those in a minority are more uncomfortable, anxious and unhappy in group settings than their majority counterparts (Matz and Wood, 2005). People take more time to express their opinions (Bassili, 2003) or simply don’t express them at all (Noelle-Neumann, 1974). 


Most research to date has depicted the minority/majority dynamic in fairly simple terms. The famous Asch (1961) studies showed that those holding a minority opinion are more reluctant to express their views and may even actively change them to conform to the majority view. Other studies have suggested that the further away someone’s opinion is to the average group opinion, the more unwilling they are to voice it (Glynn, Hayes and Shanahan, 1997).

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However, deviance from the majority norms are not always as clear cut. One argument is that we can deviate from these norms in two distinct ways. Someone may be a descriptive deviant, meaning their views diverge from the average attitude of the group. Others may be prescriptive deviants, who diverge from both the average attitude and what might be considered a desirable attitude.

What does that mean in practice? Take the example of being a student on a fairly (but not extremely) liberal college campus. The prescriptive norm on this campus would be liberal. i.e. most students you encounter would hold generally liberal views of varying degrees. Now imagine that two new students enroll at the college. Student 1 holds very strong liberal views and student 2 holds very strong conservative views. Who do you think is more likely to express their views in the form of public speaking or protest?


 

Student 2 would probably figure that a pro-republican rally wouldn’t go down too well on campus. Student 1, even though they hold more extreme views than the average campus resident, would feel more comfortable knowing that most people on campus were broadly liberal and so their extreme views were different, but acceptable because they were ‘different in a good way’.
 

Morrison and Miller (2008) conducted 3 studies that illustrated this. The first two focused on the willingness of students to express their opinions on the issue of affirmative action in college admissions decisions. In study 2, participants actually delivered a speech on this issue. The participants who reported the highest levels of pride were the ones who argued that affirmative action is a good thing. The results of the study showed that participants arguing for affirmative action (whether this was their actual view or not), reported feeling more proud than the participants who didn’t. Presumably, because they were seen as being ‘different but in a good way’.

The third study stepped outside the lab, looking at political expression during election time in California. They found that in pro-democrat or pro-republican areas, the proportion of bumper car stickers that expressed the descriptive norm (Democrat in Democrat areas and Republican in Republican respectively) was far higher than you would expect it to be based on the electoral roll. A replication of this study was conducted by researchers at the University of Illinois and looked at a different area in Central Virginia (Motyl and Noseck, 2016) and the results were consistent with Morrison and Miller.

 

Although these studies were limited to political belief, which one could argue may be somewhat malleable over time and isn’t generalisable to all the nuances of how minority groups are treated; it does raise some interesting questions and avenues for further research.

2019 sees the world in an increasingly polarised state. Radical political views on both the left and right sides of the spectrum are being vocalized across numerous platforms. Yet, these views don't necessarily reflect the more moderate majority opinion. Often, people can live in a relative bubble, assuming that the political beliefs that they share with friends and family are more representative of the general public than the statistics suggest. Although at once emboldening and empowering, it is easy to see a dangerous and slippery slope for someone believing they are ‘different in a good way’.


 

References
1. Matz, D. C., & Wood, W. (2005). Cognitive Dissonance in Groups: The Consequences of Disagreement. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88(1), 22-37.

2. Bassili, J. N. (2003). The minority slowness effect: Subtle inhibitions in the expression of views not shared by others. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(2), 261-276

3. Noelle‐Neumann, Elisabeth. "The spiral of silence a theory of public opinion." Journal of communication 24.2 (1974): 43-51.

4. Asch, S. E. (1961). Issues in the Study of Social Influences on Judgment. In I. A. Berg & B. M. Bass (Eds.), Conformity and deviation (pp. 143-158). New York, NY, US: Harper and Brothers.

5. Glynn, C., Hayes, A., & Shanahan, J. (1997). Perceived Support for One's Opinions and Willingness to Speak Out: A Meta-Analysis of Survey Studies on the "Spiral of Silence". The Public Opinion Quarterly, 61(3), 452-463. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2749581

6. Morrison, K. R., & Miller, D. T. (2008). Distinguishing between silent and vocal minorities: Not all deviants feel marginal. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94(5), 871-882.

7. Motyl, M., & Nosek, B. A. (2016, August 19). Replication of Morrison & Miller (2008, JPSP, Study 3). Retrieved from osf.io/nhwv5

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