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Can we use silence to change public opinion?

Namkje Koudenburg’s research receives recognition
11 November 2019

Social psychologist Namkje Koudenburg (1986) has received an Early Career Award from the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW). The award is intended for young researchers so that they can further develop their original research ideas. Koudenburg examines the impact of conversational microdynamics on public opinion.

Namkje Koudenburg
Namkje Koudenburg

Congratulations! You’re certainly raking in the prizes. You’ve already won various awards and distinctions (here at the UG and abroad), you’ve secured a Veni grant and now this. Why do you think you are getting all these prizes and distinctions?

Thank you! I think my research is valued because the research questions I ask are relevant to a range of disciplines (psychology, communication sciences, sociology and political science), and because I have a surprising focus and methodology. I look at very subtle characteristics of conversations (conversation flow, silences) and show that they are important when it comes to shaping social structures and changing public opinion.

Can you explain more about this?

People are very sensitive to signals that could indicate rejection or a difference of opinion. My research shows that many of these signals aren’t contained in what is being said, but in how something is said. Whether or not a conversation runs smoothly, for example, is critically important for discovering whether we’re on the same page and whether our relationship is good. If there’s a silence, we will feel a relational threat and we wonder whether we’ve said something wrong.

You’re now focusing more on polarization and public opinion. What does conversation flow have to do with that?

I think that the role of subtle signals is underestimated in the development of public opinion. Take the Zwarte Piet debate, for example. People often focus on the ‘shouters’, who state their views very loudly and firmly. But many people don’t yet have a clear opinion on the issue and they try to find out what they think by talking to others and listening to what they have to say. Often, people don’t just look at the content of the conversation, but at the subtle clues about confirmation or rejection. If I state my opinion and there’s a silence, I may have said something wrong. After a short silence like that, people feel that their opinion is threatening the relationship and they modify their views so that they can still belong. Taken together, many small conversations of this kind can create a norm –through subtle signals of rejection or confirmation – about what can be said publicly and what can’t.

Based on your professional understanding, do you have any advice for our politicians in this time of protests?

We are now examining the implications for everyday conversations of formulating positions that are diametrically opposed. If you feel that you should be either for or against Zwarte Piet, this complicates an open discussion of solutions. Every statement you make about Zwarte Piet then has the potential to put pressure on your relationship with others. I think there is scope in nuance, and that politicians have an exemplary role to play by putting less emphasis on differences between the stances.

What does all this recognition mean to you?

It’s wonderful! It has my name on it, but it is of course the result of many successful collaborations. After all, research is all about teamwork. I think that recognition really helps to confirm that our methodology (and the focus on subtle signals in conversations) yields valuable and relevant insights.

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Last modified:30 April 2020 3.55 p.m.
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