The Power of A Simple Conversation: Our Partnership With StoryCorps
Summary: More in Common is partnering with StoryCorps and its One Small Step initiative to examine how Americans react to conversations between two Americans with different beliefs and worldviews. Initial results are promising: we are seeing a 50% increase in Americans’ willingness to engage with those on the “other side” after listening to One Small Step conversations.
In conversations with Americans from all walks of life, we often hear people expressing both exhaustion and despair at the country’s polarization. Distrust between Republicans and Democrats is so intense that just one in ten regard people with different politics to theirs as “reasonable,” while four in five describe the other side as “brainwashed” and “hateful.” This leaves many Americans deeply pessimistic about the future, unable to see a way out of the country’s deep divisions. According to the American Psychological Association: “two in three adults say that the current political climate is a significant source of stress in their lives.”
Survey: N=1,500 adult US citizens from July 14 to July 28, 2022. Margin of error: +/- 2.5, higher for subgroups.
This sense of despair creates a vicious cycle: as America’s Exhausted Majority loses hope of a way out, many are withdrawing from civic life – allowing political platforms to be filled by extreme voices. The more those extreme voices dominate the national conversation, the more Americans feel fear, contempt, and anger towards those on the “other side.”
A key question that More in Common wrestles with is how we break this vicious cycle and avoid these divisions from escalating into widespread violence. Of one thing we feel certain: changing these dynamics is not possible as long as Americans see no hope of a way out. But in such polarized times, how do Americans recover that sense of hope?
Bridging divides through conversations: StoryCorps’ One Small Step
These questions animate our partnership with the award-winning media nonprofit StoryCorps and their One Small Step initiative. One Small Step is a project that brings together two Americans of different beliefs, worldviews, and experiences who have never met before to sit down for a one-on-one hour-long conversation. These conversations began in three anchor communities: Fresno/Central Valley, CA; Richmond, VA; and Wichita, KS; and in six radio station hubs concentrated in America’s south and midwestern states. So far, more than 3,000 people have taken part.
In One Small Step conversations, participants meet to learn about each other as people, not to debate about politics. And despite often holding very different worldviews, participants overwhelmingly describe these conversations as a positive experience and discover they have far more in common than they might expect. Indeed, some of these encounters have even sparked ongoing friendships.
One Small Step participants in Fresno, California.
From one conversation, to a whole country
But the purpose of One Small Step is not just to create a powerful experience in the lives of those who participate in the conversations. At a much larger scale, it aims to remind Americans of the humanity in all of us, even those with whom we disagree – and maybe even shift the needle and spark hope that America can move beyond our deep divisions. This is where More in Common comes in. For the past 18 months, we have been working with StoryCorps to find out how these conversations might resonate with larger audiences, beyond the participants themselves. When people hear regular Americans enjoying conversations with each other despite their differences, does that surprise them? And critically, do these conversations change their perceptions of the country’s divisions?
In our work with StoryCorps to answer these questions, we’ve been utilizing our Hidden Tribes segmentation of the population, which allows us to test specifically how these conversations land with harder-to-reach groups of Americans, who often feel hopeless about the country’s deep divisions. StoryCorps is distilling these conversations into short audio-visual files, suitable for news and social media, which we are then testing with different audiences.
“I have been following More in Common's research for many years. To actually have More in Common evaluate and study our work was a dream come true- it has informed every aspect of the creation and execution of One Small Step.”
- Dave Isay, Founder and President, StoryCorps
Increasing Americans’ willingness to engage with the “other side”
The initial results have surprised us all – and in the best ways. After hearing a series of these conversations, we have seen an almost 50 percent increase in Americans’ willingness to engage with those on the “other side.” As the graph below shows, 62 percent of those who have listened to a One Small Step conversation say that they would be interested in participating in something similar, compared to just 42 percent of those who have no exposure to the One Small Step content.
Baseline Survey: N=2,000 adult US citizens from June 6 to June 10, 2022. Margin of error: +/- 2.2. Post-OSS Survey: N=300 adult US citizens from April 14 to May 26, 2022. Margin of error: +/- 5.7.
“I feel much less cynical…Watching videos such as these has contributed to this change in feeling…It seems that there possibly is a good amount of people that sincerely want to talk and understand each other. I guess social media and media in general likely warped my perception in that pretty much nobody wants to talk to or understand one another.” - Clyde, age 18-24, White male, Progressive Activist, Florida
“I never thought I was quick to judge...but I was…and how quickly I changed my mind, by just listening. Strange!” - Martha, age 55-64, White female, Devoted Conservative, Maine
Not surprisingly, the conversations do not resonate with everyone. Some who listen to the conversations say that they are “too good to be true.” A few are so pessimistic about the country’s divisions that they question whether these are fake conversations that involve paid actors reading a script. Those reactions underscore the need to identify which conversations resonate best.
Overall, however, responses to the content were overwhelmingly positive. For the best-performing conversation we have identified so far, 9 in 10 Americans describe it as authentic and engaging – with 6 in 10 agreeing strongly. We have found that audiences engage more positively with warm, relatable participants; they like it when people show a sense of humor in their interactions, and many are interested in conversations that bridge racial divides. Conversations that have an element of surprise can be especially powerful, such as a positive conversation between a Trump supporter and a left-leaning Muslim American.
“Love it! They both had stereotypes and had the open mind and honesty to admit it. I believe we need more of these type of people in our lives.” - Mack, age 45-54, White male, Traditional Conservative, Ohio
“That people of different races and different political parties got along because they sat down and talked to each other. It was interesting to me, I wanted to hear what they talked about.” - Allen, age 35-44, Black male, Disengaged, New York
“I think it made me feel different about the Muslim stereotype. They have a different religion and wear different clothes but in a lot of ways they are a lot like the rest of us.” - Priscilla, age 55-64, Asian female, Disengaged, New York
As the name implies, one conversation is only a small step. But in times when many Americans worry about the extremism of people with different beliefs, exposure to these conversations can be a powerful corrective and a source of hope. More in Common and StoryCorps are hoping to continue working together as the One Small Step project scales up in the months and years to come, and as StoryCorps works with media partners and platforms to reach local and national audiences at scale. It is in its early days, but the evidence suggests that One Small Step and similar efforts can play an important role in building a more united and inclusive America.
"Through this close partnership, StoryCorps and More in Common are both advancing our missions and gaining unique insights. Together we’re being reminded every day that Americans can transcend this moment of deep division. It is an honor to do this work.”
- Tim Dixon, Co-founder, More in Common
Click here to learn more about One Small Step or to apply to take part in a conversation.
More in Common partnered with international polling company YouGov to conduct online survey interviews with n=800 U.S. adults from August 22 to 29, 2022. The data was weighted to be representative of American citizens using propensity scores, with score functions including gender, age, race, education, and region. The weights were then post-stratified on 2020 Presidential vote choice, and a four-way stratification of gender, age (6-category), race (5-category), and education (4-category). The margin of error (adjusted for weighting) is +/- 3.5 for the US average and higher for subgroups.
Americans in Conversation Online Research Platform
More in Common recruited a representative sample of participants to its Americans in Conversation online platform. From April 14 – May 26, 2022, we asked panelists questions and tested StoryCorps content with two randomized groups of panelists, roughly representative demographically. Each panelist sample saw a total of eight videos. After watching the video, panelists were given a set of questions probing their opinions on the pieces of content. A total of N = 260-280 panelists completed each of the four activities, with an overall margin of error of +/- 5.9% - 6.1%, higher for subgroups.