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Education professor helps correct COVID-19 misconceptions

Greg Trevors, an assistant professor of educational psychology and research at the College of Education, discusses his research on belief correction as it relates to COVID-19. Trevors helped develop an online game to help people correct misconceptions about COVID-19.

Prior to the pandemic, what was the thrust of your research agenda?

I’m interested in how people correct their misconceptions about science or medicine. I’ve looked at things like evolution, climate change and more recently vaccinations. I look at the contributing factors — the cognitive and emotional processes — and try to determine which processes lead to effective corrections and which ones fail.

And now you’ve helped develop a game to help correct misconceptions about COVID-19?

In essence, it marries two different theories. One is just the principles of gamification. People love games, so we’re trying to take advantage of that, but in a learning context. So, people earn points, they get scores, or they work through different levels to attain prizes and rewards. We use fun colors, all of the different design elements of gaming that intrinsically motivate people.

The other aspect involves using evidence-based practices to inform belief correction. That’s where I come in. My work for the last decade or so has been about correcting common misconceptions. There are a few principles that we know are effective in most cases. We try to apply those evidence-based practices so that when a person interacts with the content, we don’t trigger negative emotions as much. We’re trying to find a more indirect route for people to engage and interact with the content.

We want to change the way that people engage with scientific evidence that results in more informed decisions.

Psychologically, what’s going on when people refuse to accept scientific evidence? Is it simply cognitive dissonance?

Dissonance is something that we actually like to see sometimes because we can work with that. It represents a cognitive conflict between what you thought you knew and what’s being presented to you, and usually researchers and educators can develop a pretty good explanation of some science issue that is accepted by most. But when we see dissonance paired with a negative emotion like anger or skepticism it’s more challenging to see acceptance, and in that case, maybe there’s some questions of the person’s identity involved.

There are also moral values that people have about the world, whether they care most about reducing other people’s harm, being loyal to their own group or maintaining their personal autonomy. So, you have those three basic camps, and they’re going to respond differently to, for instance, a mandate to wear masks. It’s a very visible, very tangible reflection of those values. Appeals to wear masks might challenge their moral values, and that’s enough to drive some negative emotion.

Who are your collaborators?

One is nonprofit based out of Canada called Digital Public Square. They build online digital platforms to change how people interact on sensitive topics and to improve engagement. A good analog to this project is a trivia game they developed to try to help workers in China understand labor laws and what rights they have. It’s a little difficult to get that kind of information into China, but with their platforms, they were able to do it. The other person I’m working with is Eric Brenner, a medical epidemiologist here at UofSC. He helps us check the corrective content that we develop to make sure it’s consistent with the best evidence available so far.

You weren’t thinking about COVID-19 a year ago. You were, however, thinking about attitudes relating to vaccines. That may bring your work full circle, in a sense.

I’ve done several years of work looking at why people adopt or refuse vaccines in the context of trying to change misconceptions. I’m hoping that as the reality on the ground changes, we could swap out the content related to misconceptions about COVID-19 and bring in some vaccination content. We’re also hoping that this will become a sort of generalizable, transferable platform for approaching sensitive issues that evoke negative emotions or motivations. We want to change the way that people engage with scientific evidence that results in more informed decisions.

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