Perception Gaps and How We Can Overcome Fear of “the Other Side”
Nine in 10 people today believe that America is more divided than at any other point in their lifetime. Yet despite pronounced differences across race, geography, education, and class, Americans generally tend to overestimate the prevalence of extreme views held by those with differing political views (“the other side”) on key issues like race, immigration, and policing.
According to a recent study conducted by More In Common, the nonprofit that studies polarization in an effort to build more resilient societies (and also a key partner to One Small Step), the discrepancy is startling. In their report entitled The Perception Gap, Americans have a deeply inaccurate understanding of each other. The Perception Gap refers to the difference between one side’s actual beliefs and the other side’s perceptions of those beliefs. In other words, each side thinks the other is way more extreme than they are, because they associate the other side with the most extreme version of them.
On the topic of racism, for example, Democrats believe that nearly half of Republicans deny it even exists. The actual percentage is 21 percent.
Democrats’ Perception Gap
Republicans’ Perception Gap
“Reducing perception gaps is important because fear of the other side is such a major reason for excusing rule-breaking, violence, and extremism on your own side,” More In Common founder Tim Dixon said.
The wider a person’s perception gap, the likelier they are to describe the other side as “hateful,” “racist,” or “brainwashed.”
What you can do to overcome perception gaps:
- Recognize your echo chamber. We gravitate to like-minded people, and consume news sources that align with our perspectives—there’s nothing wrong with that! However, it’s critical that we question whether we’re hearing what is objectively true, or just something we prefer to hear.
- Be an ambassador for humanity. Research shows that people are more likely to sympathize with the other side if someone from their own political group does it first.
- Consider participating in One Small Step. Anyone in the US can pair up in a 50-minute conversation with someone who holds different beliefs. Sign up to be matched.
In times of heightened tension and violence—especially when there is growing mistrust of national news outlets—One Small Step pairs two people with opposing viewpoints, so they can begin to get to know each other as people and restore trust—one conversation at a time.
Wichita Conservative Advisory Group Member Shares His Experiences
We recently sat down with Ben Sauceda, a member of the One Small Step (OSS) Conservative Community Advisory Group in Wichita, Kansas, to learn more about what drew him to become engaged in OSS.
Ben was encouraged to participate in an OSS interview by his friend, Dalton Glasscock, who was one of the first OSS participants in Wichita. Ben recorded his interview with his conversation partner in April 2022. Then, StoryCorps Founder and President Dave Isay came to Wichita to speak at the annual Wichita Chamber of Commerce luncheon.
“I like civic engagement,” Ben said. “Even though I’m a conservative guy, I think differences only strengthen us. I’m excited to encourage others to participate in OSS.”
“Conservatives are skeptical of the media,” he said. “We’re trying to get more people in and around Wichita, especially conservatives, to be engaged in these important conversations.” By reaching out to his network of friends, and through his role on the Park City City Council (Park City is a town just outside of Wichita), Ben is elevating the importance of OSS conversations and encouraging others to participate. “There’s obviously a group of people—on both sides—that don’t want anything to do with the other side. But there’s a large segment who are open to having a conversation. The more they hear what it’s like to participate, the more open they are,” he said.
Research commissioned by StoryCorps indicates that 1 in 5 Wichita residents are now familiar with the OSS program—a significant level of awareness after just two years of work in the Anchor Community.
In addition to serving on the Wichita Conservative Community Advisory Council, Ben also appears in the OSS Wichita ad campaign that debuted in May. “I’ve had people tell me they’ve seen me in a commercial,” he said. “A friend signed up and she said ‘I saw you did it and so I signed up!’”
Experiences like Ben’s help others see the value in participating in OSS. Learn more and apply to be matched today.
Research Underscores Impact of One Small Step Experience
How do we ensure that engaging with the One Small Step initiative is having the desired effect—helping people with opposing political views see the humanity in each other, and seeding hope for a better future? At StoryCorps, we leverage several research studies to understand and measure the impact of our work.
To assess the impact of the conversation experience, we work with Yale University’s Social Perception and Communication Laboratory. This high-level research examines changes in interpersonal empathy and perceptions before and after someone participates in an OSS conversation. Among more than 400 participants, Yale found that both liberal and conservative participants felt more empathetic toward their interview partner after their OSS conversation, and the most recent results suggest that some participants show significant levels of increased empathy for all people on “the other side” after participating in OSS.
We partner with More In Common, an organization dedicated to fighting polarization, to measure general reactions to the content we create about One Small Step. They test our advertising campaigns, our messaging, and the snippets of OSS conversations we create and distribute as short animations with a broad cross-section of Americans to help us improve our work.
They identify the characteristics of our campaigns and content that most inspire and engage Americans and they help us understand which of these qualities have the most potential to shift perceptions of America’s divisions. And, they show us how specific audience segments respond to different messages so we can target the right audiences with the right content.
After polling more than 1,000 research participants, they found that our best performing content feels genuine and unscripted; features authentic, relatable participants who have real chemistry; and showcases conversations focused on human connection rather than political issues. They also discovered that OSS content and messaging convinces most people (more than 60 percent) that it is possible to have meaningful conversations with someone who holds different political beliefs, and that exposure to our best content can increase Americans’ willingness to engage directly with those with different political beliefs by almost 50 percent.
Lastly, we work with Benenson Strategy Group, a leading national pollster, to measure awareness of OSS in Wichita—one of our One Small Step Anchor Communities—as well as shifts in attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors of Wichita residents exposed to OSS. In our most recent poll in late 2022, they surveyed more than 500 Wichitans and found that OSS reached a significant level of awareness in Wichita: an astoundingly high 1 in 5 residents had heard of the program.
Wichitans who are aware of OSS (who participated in a conversation, saw an ad, or experienced our content) are more hopeful that civil communication across the political divide is possible than those who are unaware. Wichitans who are aware of OSS report less division locally and nationally, compared to those who aren’t aware, and they are also significantly more likely to respect—and feel respected by—those with whom they disagree politically.
Each of these ongoing research studies helps us—along with our funders and the bridge-building field—understand how to make our work more effective. The bottom line? Exposure to OSS, whether someone participates in a conversation or not, shifts Americans’ beliefs and behaviors and puts us on a path to normalizing cross-partisan conversation and gives us hope for a better future. Stay tuned for more on this front soon!
Curiosity Leads to Finding Commonalities and a Neighbor
When Alexandra Slusher heard about One Small Step at church, she knew it was something she wanted to do. The daughter of an immigrant from India, she had traveled extensively, gone to college in Hawaii, and experienced different cultures throughout her life. And so, she immediately connected to the premise of One Small Step.
“I’ve always felt that knowing people takes away the fear,” she says. “And fear is really where prejudice comes from.”
Perhaps her history as a portrait artist allows her to see the inner qualities of people; Alexandra remembers being enthusiastic at the prospect of her conversation. Talking to strangers, after all, was always something that came easily to the retired office manager and substitute teacher who moved to Virginia from New Jersey almost 40 years ago.
It didn’t take long to discover some commonalities with her One Small Step match. From the outset, they discovered they were practically neighbors, living just one block apart in rural Goochland County. She also learned that she shared a common heritage with his wife, who, like her mother, is Indian. And while she is a Christian, Alexandra has studied a variety of religions, and so she had an underlying understanding of his Buddhist faith.
Alexandra describes herself as a “democratic Republican”– a little more conservative than most Democrats.
“Once we started talking, we learned we had so much in common, even though we thought differently politically,” Alexandra says. “Perhaps the biggest commonality is that we are both intellectually curious people.”
When she returned to Seventh Street Christian Church after her conversation, Alexandra shared her experience and encouraged others to participate. The church has a history of bringing disparate voices together. At one point, she said that the head of the Richmond Republican Party and the head of the Democratic Party were in the same Sunday School class.
“That led to some really interesting conversations, and back in those days, people could have conversations without getting upset about it,” she remembers.
Through One Small Step, perhaps past is prologue.
Interested in participating in your own conversation through One Small Step? You can sign up to be paired with a conversation partner here.
Meet Ryan Jacobsen: A One Small Step Advocate
Since its launch in 2021, StoryCorps’ One Small Step (OSS) has brought strangers with different political beliefs together for a conversation—not to debate politics—but to get to know each other as people. Currently, the initiative is intensively focused in three Anchor Communities including the Fresno/Central Valley region. The success of OSS in each location is largely due to the advocacy of local partners and individuals who believe strongly in the OSS mission and are willing to work alongside the OSS team as advocates.
One such advocate is Ryan Jacobsen, CEO of the Fresno County Farm Bureau, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting and protecting agriculture. StoryCorps sat down with Ryan to talk about his passion for One Small Step and why he thinks the Fresno/Central Valley area is the perfect location for an Anchor Community.
How did you first become aware of OSS?
In January of last year, I saw the OSS feature on “60 Minutes” and around this same time, I also started to hear about Fresno/Central Valley being picked as one of just a handful of communities nationwide to lead OSS. My first impression was ‘this is terrific’ because we need to be able to do something to counter the hyper-partisanship in America today.
We also had Dave [Isay, StoryCorps founder and president] here to speak to our Rotary club and afterward, I think we all felt very supportive of OSS and proud that we were chosen to lead this project.
Why do you think Fresno/Central Valley is a great choice to be an OSS Anchor Community?
This area is different from people’s perceptions of what California is. For example, we are purple — with a real mix of politicians from both sides of the aisle and a very diverse population. Historically, many different groups have come here to farm over the generations and that diversity is borne out by the fact that 59 languages are spoken by students and their families within the Fresno Unified School District. The Central Valley feeds the rest of the country with over 350 different types of crops.
You participated in an OSS conversation—what was that experience like for you?
I want to assure anyone who is hesitant to participate in a conversation that there is nothing to worry about. The conversation process is so easy because the facilitator who leads the discussion is highly trained and makes sure you and your partner feel comfortable the whole way through. I’ve encouraged lots of people here to participate in a conversation and no one has had regrets.
As an OSS Community Advisory Group (CAG) member, why are you continuing to support OSS?
As a member of the advisory group, I am here to be the voice of the community. I’m invested in OSS because I believe that we all have much more in common than we have differences and the current divisions in our country are not good for us. We need a better way forward and OSS is just that: one small step in the right direction.
Creating Deeper Connections: Five One Small Step New Year’s Resolution Ideas
January is the perfect time to set new year’s resolutions. And while there is nothing wrong with trying to exercise more or eat healthier, we here at StoryCorps are in the human connection business, so naturally, our resolution suggestions are all about personal connection.
In our modern world, you may already feel hyper-connected through the 24/7 nature of traditional and social media. But some of these channels can amplify divisive opinions, especially political ones, making us feel more isolated and divided. What we’re often missing is more meaningful person-to-person connections, which can expand our sense of community, while reminding us that we have more in common than divides us.
StoryCorps’ One Small Step initiative brings strangers with different political beliefs together for a conversation—not about politics—but to get to know each other as people. We’ve seen first-hand how simply talking face to face to someone with whom you might disagree has the power to bring people and communities together, one conversation at a time.
So in the spirit of feeling more connected to one another, here are our top five resolution ideas for 2023:
- Start a Conversation: Maybe it’s with the grocery checker, mail carrier, or a new neighbor. Simply greet them, ask a question, or give them a compliment. Most people will appreciate your effort and be more inclined to chat the next time you see them. Who knows, you may even make a friend.
- Get Involved: It’s easy to stick with your familiar routine, but what about opening yourself up to a new experience and meeting new people? Sign-up for a class, participate in a One Small Step conversation, or join a club or sports team. Doing something you enjoy is a great way to connect with others.
- Lean In: People often feel uncomfortable when someone offers an opinion they don’t agree with. But practicing active listening is a great way to build empathy and show someone their perspective matters, even if you don’t necessarily agree with it. Active listening means being fully present in a non-judgmental way for the conversation, asking open-ended questions to encourage further responses, and listening to understand instead of listening just to respond.
- Activate your Community: Encourage your church, workplace, or any other group you’re a part of to come together for a local cause like holding a food drive for your local homeless shelter or partnering with StoryCorps to create your own One Small Step DIY program. Not only will you connect with people you might not know otherwise, but you’ll feel great bringing people together for a good cause.
- Get the Word Out: Whatever you do to feel more connected to others, share it with your networks and encourage them to participate. For example, email your friends to let them know where they can donate to your favorite charity or post a badge to your social media channels to inspire others to participate (check out One Small Step social media badges here.)