People Assume That Those Who Remain Silent Agree With Their Own Opinion, Study Shows

Damir Mujezinovic

People assume that those who remain silent in a conversation agree with their own opinion, new study published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Consumer Psychology shows.

Whether an individual is looking to purchase a product, or deciding which political party to vote for, their opinion is inevitably influenced by opinions of others. A number of scientific studies stand testament to that, but not many have answered a burning question: How do people figure out what others think?

That is the question University of Haifa researchers Kimberlee Weaver and Anne Hamby attempted to answer in "The Sounds of Silence: Inferences from the Absence of Word‐of‐Mouth."

As it turns out, we make various assumptions about general opinions of others.

To better understand the process of predicting others' opinions, Weaver and Hamby conducted two separate experiments.

In the first experiment, study participants were shown a restaurant scene. In the scene, four individuals tried a new brand of bottled water. While waiting for their food to arrive, two of them stood up and washed their hands, while the other two remained seated and had a conversation about whether they liked the water or not.

Findings reveal an interesting pattern in study participants' predictions about opinions of others: The vast majority of respondents assumed that those not present in the conversation -- the two who went to wash their hands -- would agree with the two who remained seated and talked about liking the water.

Interestingly, regardless of participants' own opinion about the product -- they were told that they had tried the water, and either liked or disliked it -- they assumed that the two who went to wash their hands would like the water as well, because the two that remained seated liked it.

In the second experiment, all four remained seated at the table, and had a conversation about the water. This time, rather than getting up to wash their hands, half of the group stayed seated, but remained silent during the conversations. Just like in the first scenario, study participants were assigned a personal opinion.

This time, instead of predicting that the silent two agreed with the opinion of the group, study participants predicted that they would agree with their own opinion. In other words, if a study respondent had been told that they liked the water, they assumed that the silent ones would like it too, and vice versa. This happened even when study respondents' own opinion differed from the group's.

This shows that people generally assume that others are silent because they would have also remained silent.

Weaver and Hamby call this phenomenon "mirror effect," and claim that it shows that people generally assume that those who remain silent agree with them.

"Even though the opinions in both study scenarios were equally unknown, people drew markedly different inferences about how those with unknown opinions felt about the topic based on whether they were actively silent or simply absent from the conversation," Kimberlee Weaver explained in a statement supplied to ScienceDaily.