In a polarized opinion climate, people may refrain from participating in publicly-observable political activities that make them vulnerable to scrutiny and criticism by others who hold different opinions and perspectives. We took a dispositional approach to testing this claim by determining whether people who differ in their willingness to censor their own opinion expression are less likely to engage in public political activities. In a poll of residents of the United States, respondents were administered the Willingness to Self-Censor Scale (Hayes, Glynn, & Shanahan, 2005) as well as a series of questions about their recent political activity. Even after controlling for interest in politics, political ideology, ideological extremity, political efficacy, attention to political news, dispositional shyness, frequency of political discussion, and demographics, we found that dispositional self-censors reported having engaged in relatively fewer public political activities over the prior two years compared to those less willing to censor their own opinion expression. These results are consistent with our interpretation of political participation as a social process that is governed in part by the social psychological implications of participation to the person. At a larger theoretical level, our findings connect the literature on opinion perceptions and opinion expression with research on political participation.
KEYWORDS: Political Participation, Disagreement, Self-Censorship, Public Opinion, Opinion Expression
In closing, our data support our claim that nonparticipation in public political activities amounts to a form of self-censorship, where some but certainly not all people consider the climate of opinion and the social ramifications of participation prior to action. Our data are consistent with our argument that self-censors may want to participate but worry so much so about the social consequences of expressing opinions that others might find disagreeable or offensive that they choose nonparticipation as the safer course.