Self-Censorship: Psychological Barriers for Transmitting Information

06 January, 2020
Self-censorship refers to those times when you can reveal certain information, but you choose not to so for certain reasons. Read more about it here.

Sometimes you choose not to reveal information even though you have it. You stay silent but that doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s something stopping you from talking. Under some circumstances, you simply decide that it’s better not to share the information you have. Why is that? That’s all due to a psychological mechanism that some experts call self-censorship. Researchers define self-censorship as the act of intentionally and voluntarily hiding information from others even without formal barriers to revealing it.

When the information is very valuable, it’s more likely that you’ll keep it to yourself. Self-censoring certain information can help to maintain peaceful coexistence in society. It might even help to prevent evil. Nevertheless, self-censorship can create anxiety, guilt, and shame. Not only that, but it might be a bad idea to hamper the free flow of information. As such, it can also contribute to ignorance in society, weaken public debate, and contribute to moral degradation.

Free access to information

Free access to information increases the value of freedom of expression and critical thinking. Likewise, free access allows for more informed discussions on issues. Not only that, but such discussions tend to be more open as well. It helps to improve the transparency of the system and increases the reach of public discussions.

All of this allows leaders and members of society to make more balanced decisions. These decisions will also tend to be better-informed on social issues. That helps to reduce the incidence of moral transgressions. In this way, free access to information allows for the dynamic change of opinions while facilitating the development of tolerance.

Nevertheless, in every society, there’s a certain tension between the free flow of information and its restriction. In this regard, it’s not hard to imagine how the unchecked flow of information can harm a society.

In fact, even the most liberal, democratic, and learned countries believe it’s necessary to suppress at least some information and opinions. Yet limiting the access to information doesn’t just fall under the purview of laws, rules, and formal mechanisms. You can also see it when individuals functioning as collective members of a group choose to impose self-censorship on themselves.

A mug in the foreground and a man in the background.

Components of self-censorship

Self-censorship requires that the person in question has information that no one else has revealed. When we speak of “information”, that doesn’t include opinions. Information, as opposed to opinions, needs to be true. We mean something that really happened and that people can verify and validate without having to resort to personal opinions. What qualifies as information is an extremely diverse field and information can be either positive or negative.

The act of self-censorship indicates that an individual intentionally and voluntarily refuses to share this information. That’s despite the fact that there’s no formal impediment (in other words, external censorship) that stops them from sharing it.

Psychological foundations of self-censorship

Psychology posits that self-censorship is founded on at least three elements:

First of all, human beings naturally tend to share, communicate, and reveal information. Members of societies have psychological and social incentives to share information. As such, there are certain natural obstacles in place for self-censorship to occur.

Secondly, people, as members of groups, are concerned about their groups. This means that they’re going to try to maintain a positive image of their group and avoid information that might have negative implications for the group’s image.

Lastly, a person who knows they have new information that’s relevant but hasn’t been revealed will face a dilemma. This dilemma appears when that information might cause harm to others if they reveal it. That could be because it violates some rule, dogma, ideology, or values system.

The strength of this dilemma can vary from person to person. It also depends on the type of information, context, and other factors. Nevertheless, someone always experiences at least a small internal struggle of this type when they engage in self-censorship.

A woman covering her mouth symbolizing self-censorship.

Contributing factors

There are four factors that contribute to the development of self-censorship. These are: the group context, the individual factors, the type of information in question, and circumstantial factors. The importance of the collective context lies in the fact that it dictates the needs and objectives of the members of the society. It’s also linked to the challenges that the society’s members must face in order to reach said needs and goals.

It also brings opportunities and limitations, stimuli and inhibitions, as well as spaces and limits for human behavior. In terms of individual factors, personality features, one’s world view, values, ideologies, emotions, attitudes, and motivations are going to influence self-censorship.

Regarding the type of information, the seriousness of the information, relevance to the present moment, type of actions it involves, and the goals and problems faced by the information are going to have an impact on self-censorship.

Likewise, many circumstantial factors influence self-censorship. These could be things such as the way in which the information was collected or the number of people who are aware of it. The time that has passed since you got the information and the characteristics of the possible audience for the information (in terms of their identities, roles, states, etc.) are also relevant in this regard.

How to decide

Regarding these influencing factors, you’re going to calculate the subjective costs and rewards for each decision. After that, you’re going to face the dilemma that arises from your analysis. The end result of these personal subjective considerations will determine whether or not you’re going to reveal the information. It’ll also determine who you reveal it to, how much of it you’ll reveal, and to what extent you’ll apply self-censorship.