Research: Can You Spot Skin Cancer? L&C Psychologists Share Expertise

In a state known for its gray skies and rain showers, it may come as a surprise that Oregon is in the top 10 nationally for rates of melanoma, a form of skin cancer that can be fatal or disfiguring if not treated at an early stage.

The public’s misunderstanding of melanoma risks brought Jerusha Detweiler-Bedell, professor of psychology and founding director of Lewis & Clark’s Center for Community and Global Health, and Brian Detweiler-Bedell, professor of psychology and director of the Bates Center for Entrepreneurship and Leadership, to their work on the Start Seeing Melanoma public health campaign, a collaborative project with Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) and the University of Oregon.

A photo of Professors Brian and Jerusha Detweiler-Bedell Professors Brian and Jerusha Detweiler-Bedell

“What marketers and dermatology experts don’t have is a psychological understanding of what people need to motivate themselves to adopt a new health behavior,” says Brian. “That’s where we as social psychologists and health psychologists step in.”

Graphic of melanoma Image from Start Seeing Melanoma campaignJerusha and Brian helped collect survey data in Oregon, Washington, and Utah to form a regional comparison of melanoma knowledge. The survey findings informed the Start Seeing Melanoma campaign, which uses a “spot-the-difference” strategy: individuals are shown two pictures of skin, side by side, that vary by a single mole or abnormality. When people learn to recognize the difference in the images, they gain an understanding that self-identification of potential melanoma is possible.

“It’s not just having knowledge of what you’re supposed to look for,” Jerusha says. “It’s also having self-efficacy—believing that you can be effective in identifying whatever the problem is.”

For Jerusha and Brian, work associated with the campaign is ongoing. Future steps include an academic paper and a second population survey for comparison with the hope that melanoma education among Oregonians has improved.

A key element of Jerusha and Brian’s research has been the involvement of undergraduate students through the Behavioral Health and Social Psychology Lab, which has long served as an avenue to engage students in the collaborative research process.

“In every iteration, we used the lab as a sounding board, with undergraduates giving us ideas about how to test something, how to intervene, and what that would mean in a social media campaign,” Brian says. “They were a brain trust all along the way.”