Research demonstrates success of StoryCorps project that bridges political differences

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New research suggests that StoryCorps’ One Small Step project is helping participants develop stronger feelings of empathy and understanding for people with opposing political views.

Launched in 2021, One Small Step brings together strangers with opposing views for a 50-minute, nonpolitical conversation to get to know each other. Over 4,100 people across 40 states have participated in the program.

The premise was to determine whether facilitating such discussions would foster empathy and set an example for the local community. To evaluate its success, StoryCorps worked with Jennifer Richeson, a social psychologist at Yale University; Tim Dixon, co-founder of More in Common, a nonprofit research organization that works to address polarization and division; and Joel Benenson, founder and CEO of Benenson Strategy Group, a consulting and strategic research firm.

Richeson analyzed questionnaires completed by 400 One Small Step participants before and after their conversations. Her analysis showed that both liberals and conservatives felt more empathetic towards their partners following their conversations. The research also demonstrated that the participants felt more empathetic for all people with opposing views, not just their conversation partners.

“It’s more in one direction than the other, which is interesting, but not what most people would expect,” said Ron Gunzburger, StoryCorps’ chief of staff. “What we’re finding is that both liberals and conservatives have greater feelings of empathy … but it’s conservatives that are showing statistically significant empathy to liberals as a whole after participating in the program.”

In one conversation, Martín, a self-identified conservative, and Emma, a self-identified liberal, discussed their family lives, what they admire about their parents, and their expectations of each other prior to the conversation. At the end of the clip, both participants express a deeper sense of hope and understanding of each other.

“My hope is that it doesn’t matter what the letter next to your name is — we go back to treating each other as humans and learn from one another and just getting things done,” Martín said.

Finding participants

Before their One Small Step conversations, applicants complete a questionnaire about their positions on social and economic issues, which they rank on a sliding scale from very liberal to very conservative. They are also asked how important religion is in their life, whether they are parents or grandparents, whether they would describe themselves as animal lovers, and whether they have recently undergone a major life event such as getting married or losing a job.

Finally, applicants write a short bio describing themselves and their interests, which will be shared with their partners and read aloud as part of their conversation.

StoryCorps began piloting the program in late 2017 in response to the deepening political divisions throughout the country following the presidential election. It began working in four “anchor communities”: Wichita, Kan.; Fresno/Central Valley, Calif.; Richmond, Va.; and Columbus, Ga.

Five public radio stations serve as “hub stations”: KHOL in Jackson, Wyo.; KRCB in Rohnert Park, Calif.; KUOW in Seattle; WERU in Blue Hill, Maine; and WVPE in South Bend, Ind. The stations receive training and production assistance to collaborate on the program. The stations serve as laboratories for testing approaches and are an important part of StoryCorps’ plans to scale up the One Small Step program and build a distribution model for local adoption around the country, Gunzburger said.

Alexandra Rochester, digital community outreach producer for KUOW, said that she has seen firsthand the conversations’ impact on participants. KUOW began conducting One Small Step conversations in May and hopes to begin broadcasting segments from the chats in November.

“The one complaint essentially that we have from participants is that the 50-minute conversation is not long enough — they are enjoying the conversation so much, and quite a few of our participants have exchanged email addresses and made plans to meet up,” Rochester said. “It’s not often you try and put two people in a room knowing there might be tension, and so for people to walk away from this having diluted some of the tension, that’s very different.”

KUOW decided to participate in the project because it recognized the need for more civil and human communication, Rochester said. “We know people are tired of the division, and they don’t want us just talking about the division anymore,” she said. “They want to see examples of how we’re trying to overcome it or work through it, and that’s exactly what this program is for us.”

To raise awareness about One Small Step, StoryCorps has shared snippets of the conversations in paid 30-second spots on streaming services, as well as website ads and social media posts. They are also engaged in more grassroots advertising campaigns such as canvassing, tabling at events and advertising on coffee-cup sleeves. Snippets of One Small Step conversations are available on the StoryCorps website. If participants choose to share them, full conversations are added to the StoryCorps archive, part of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.

More in Common analyzed reactions to One Small Step content and found that it had a positive impact on listeners. In an initial survey of 2,000 Americans, 42% of respondents said they would like to engage in a conversation with someone with opposing views to help lessen political divides. After being exposed to One Small Step content, that percentage increased to 62%.

According to Patrick Toomey, senior VP at Benenson Strategy Group, an initial benchmark survey conducted in Wichita, Kan., in November 2020 before One Small Step launched in the city revealed that 61% of residents said that they felt that the city was more divided than it had been at any point during their lifetimes. Thirty-five percent said that at multiple points in the previous year they had felt that people in their community not only disagreed with their political views but disliked them because of their views.

Two years later, in December 2022, a follow-up survey of 536 Wichita adults showed that one in five respondents had heard of One Small Step. Those who were aware of the program said they were more hopeful that respectful communication across political lines is possible. By a margin of 22%, respondents who had been exposed to One Small Step content said they were optimistic that the country could overcome challenges compared to respondents who had not been exposed. They were also less likely to say that the city was more divided than at any point during their lifetimes.

What’s next?

Toomey said that while there is still work to be done in reducing polarization and fostering empathy for those with opposing political views, the survey results demonstrate that the situation is improving.

“We’ve made a lot of progress, and particularly this research suggests that One Small Step is a big part of that,” Toomey said. “The folks who were engaging with it are just a lot more likely to feel connected to people whose politics differ from their own, feel less alienated in their communities, and just feel hopeful about our ability to overcome division, even if they still see it as a problem.”

StoryCorps’ Gunzburger said that the research has been useful in demonstrating that the program is working as intended and that it is ripe for scaling up and expanding. CPB has provided more than $2.4 million for One Small Step, which has also received support from foundations including the Hearthland Foundation and the Arthur M. Bank Family Foundation. Such backing demonstrates a recognized need for a project of this nature, Gunzburger said.

Based on the research, StoryCorps plans to continue expanding the program to stations across the country and to boost marketing efforts, including PSAs and social media campaigns. Gunzburger said that StoryCorps hopes to work with stations to incorporate One Small Step into their programming in whatever ways they choose, offering training in mediation and conversation facilitation.

The project’s next phase includes rolling out an app to facilitate conversations among people who might not live in an anchor community but want to participate in the project. All conversations recorded with the app will be added to StoryCorps’ archive.

“From the conversation experience, exposure to the content, to the community impact, all three elements of the research show it works, so for scaling up it’s simply a matter of dollars and bodies to work for this,” Gunzburger said. “… We know people like it and want to do it once they learn about it.”

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