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!