Theses Doctoral

Observational Learning and Experiential Learning: American Political Polarization and the Search for Common Ground

Starmer, Melinda Diane

In a time of extreme political polarization in America, it is necessary to understand how political attitudes are shaped and how and why political perspectives shift. This study explored political polarization and the search for common ground among American voters in order to evaluate 1) political orientation and associations with current and shifting political attitudes, perceptions, behaviors, and learning; 2) political efficacy and associations with political participation; 3) contributions of individual events, experiences, sources and/or social interactions to shifting political perspectives; and 4) the potential role of observational learning and experiential learning as it relates to political attitudinal change.

Through a mixed-methods design, this study utilized both quantitative and qualitative methods in two phases in anticipation of the November 2020 U.S. presidential election. First, a survey was administered nationwide on Facebook in July and August of 2020. Second, a small number of participants that indicated that their political views had shifted during the Trump presidency were interviewed in October 2020 to discover more in-depth responses regarding both the formation and shifts of their political ideologies and attitudes.

Quantitative statistical analysis from the survey (n = 1,313) revealed that 1) political orientation was significantly associated with a variety of current and shifting political attitudes, political participation, cognitive perceptions and emotions, social media and news media usage, and learning; and 2) personal and collective political efficacy was significantly associated with increased political participation. Qualitative analysis from the semi-structured interviews (n = 16) utilizing the Framework Method indicated that 1) social interactions with role models and media sources informed shifts in political attitudes, especially in regard to family; 2) deeper understandings of shifting political attitudes emerged when viewed through the observational learning subprocesses of attention, retention, reproduction, and motivation; 3) shifting political attitudes were associated with cognitive perceptions and emotions of partisan ingroups and partisan outgroups; 4) deeper understandings of shifting political attitudes emerged when viewed through the experiential learning stages of returning to the experience, attending to emotions, and re-evaluating the experience; and 5) barriers to shifting political attitudes were related to the cognitive perceptions of reason and emotion, whereas rewards for shifting political attitudes were related to increased political participation and learning.

The study’s conclusions reaffirmed that there is widespread political polarization in the United States but that there are certain pathways towards common ground through civility and respect, intentional listening, and through the sharing of personal and emotional stories and lived experiences. Those who did shift their views shared an openness to learning through the observation of role models and sources (e.g., family, friends, mentors or teachers, religious leaders, media) and through reflection on past experiences. Aspects of political common ground were obtained not by agreeing on a contentious issue, but by acknowledging that multiple sides of an argument could be valid. It’s about how we approach the problem rather than how we solve the problem. Political orientation is much more complex than the dichotomous portrayal of left versus right.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Organization and Leadership
Thesis Advisors
Bitterman, Jeanne E.
Ed.D., Teachers College, Columbia University
Published Here
July 15, 2021