The Learning Curve

The Learning Curve is Public Agenda's framework for understanding how people's opinion shifts over time to become stable and sound judgment, providing a solid foundation for sustainable policy.

The Learning Curve was developed by Dan Yankelovich, Public Agenda's cofounder, who has spent decades studying the field of public opinion. It is the backbone of Public Agenda's research and engagement work.

People go through a distinct process before they can soundly determine the best way to move forward on a complicated issue. They need to decide an issue is worth struggling with, grapple with pros and cons, overcome denial and wishful thinking, come to grips with emotional resistance and, often, accept changes in behavior. This is their Learning Curve.

The Learning Curve is segmented into three distinct phases:

  1. Consciousness-raising. People become aware of an issue and start taking it seriously; this stage is typically media driven.

  2. Working through. People begin to confront the need for change, consider the pros and cons of proposed actions, and wrestle with tradeoffs. In this stage, people also struggle to reconcile their positions on issues with their core values. In this sometimes stormy process, values and emotions play a major role, along with objective analysis and deliberation. The media tend to be of little help to citizens at this stage, and in fact there are startling few institutions in society that provide people with support for this important public work.

  3. Resolution. Having worked through their emotional resistances and cognitive weighing of pros and cons, people settle on a course of action and are prepared to accept its likely consequences. At this stage, leaders will have a clear sense of where public support truly lies and can act accordingly.

Forward progress on a complex issue can be deeply affected, and often derailed, by people not working through the issue. For example, taking the appropriate action when it comes to a complex issue often requires sacrifice or a change in behavior, and people need to be ready to accept this to move forward. Before people can truly embrace an acceptable pathway forward, they must work through the issue and come to terms with it both intellectually and emotionally.

How Public Agenda's Work Can Accelerate the Learning Curve

Occasionally, public opinion can evolve fairly quickly, but in most cases a period of time is needed for opinion to shift to sound judgment. In the meantime, policymakers can find it difficult to develop sustainable policy.

Public Agenda's work provides a way to understand and accelerate people's Learning Curves.

Through research, we discover where groups of people are on their Learning Curves. How aware are they of the issue? Have they acknowledged pros and cons? What conflicts can we anticipate? Which are real conflicts and which come from miscommunication or a different ranking of priorities? What information, tools, resources and guidance will people need to progress toward sound understanding and judgment?

Our stakeholder engagement work gets key people talking to others with diverse viewpoints, in facilitated dialogues structured using unbiased discussion materials. And our issue framing and work can help broader swaths of the public engage issues in fresh ways.

Exposing people to viewpoints that are different from their own helps them work through all of the possible tradeoffs involved in any potential solution, break down the wall of dichotomous thinking, and realize that there is no magic bullet.

People then typically become more willing to consider options and work with others to build common ground on solutions.

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