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Oregon State researchers explore why some people believe COVID-19 myths

A team of OSU researchers set out to better understand why people have such different attitudes when it comes to the coronavirus pandemic.

PORTLAND, Ore. — As the COVID-19 vaccine rolls out, there are still many out there who incorrectly think the virus is a hoax. Researchers at Oregon State University (OSU) in Bend are working to understand why.

"We're concerned about varying and almost violently diverse opinions about the legitimacy of the pandemic and the best solutions," said Christopher Wolsko, an associate professor of psychology at Oregon State University Cascades.

This past November, Wolsko and a team of OSU researchers, set out to better understand why people have such different attitudes when it comes to the coronavirus pandemic. Why do some people believe bad information that wrongly claims the virus is hoax? And how do we improve trust between scientists, the government and the public?

"To come together with, if not the same exact values, but at least with an improved ability to cooperate and trust one another," Wolsko said.

The researchers surveyed 520 participants across the country. They also conducted focus groups in Central Oregon. The study found, overall, roughly 40% of people surveyed believe COVID-19 is no worse than the flu, and about 25% think the pandemic is likely a hoax.

"That was, on the one hand surprising, but on the other hand we did some digging into existing public opinion data…through the Pew Research Center…and they're finding similar types of things," said Wolsko.

The study found two specific communities were more likely to not trust medical and scientific establishments and hold these beliefs.

"Republicans and those who lean Libertarian or Republican tend to believe those hoax type attitudes more than people who lean left," explained Wolsko. "People of color also tend to believe more that COVID is a hoax."

Wolsko said exposure to right-wing media outlets has played a role in shaping the attitudes of right-wing voters. However he said distrust among people of color is likely the result of historical inequities in health care.

"There's plenty of data that indicates people of color are receiving worse health care in a variety of different ways, so a general distrust of the health care system," he said.

The study found those communities had similar attitudes regarding vaccinations.

The goal of Wolsko's ongoing research is to help governments improve communication with the public, so they can build trust where historically there hasn't been a lot.

"The long-term goal of our work is to engage in this sort of mutual respect across cultural divides," said Wolsko. "To improve the resiliency of our democracy as a whole and not convince one group that they have to think more like the other."