Checking symptoms online changes perceptions of health risk

Many people get their health information online, and decide whether to see a doctor based on what they find.

Now, a new study has revealed how checking off symptoms online affects individual health decisions.

Arizona State University psychologist Virginia Kwan and her colleagues found that the way information is presented – specifically, the order in which symptoms are listed-makes a significant difference.

Got a health query? Ask our experts

`People irrationally infer more meanings from a `streak“ – an uninterrupted series whether of high rolls of the dice or disease symptoms of consecutively reported symptoms. If they check off more symptoms in a row, the research found, `they perceive a higher personal risk of having that illness,` she explained.

The study was conducted with Sean Wojcik of the University of California, Irvine, Talya Miron-shatz of Ono Academic College, Ashley Votruba of ASU, and Christopher Olivola of the University of Warwick

Surveying cancer-related sites, the researchers discovered that these vary in the way they present common and mild – or `general` – symptoms and more specific and serious ones.

To test how streaks affect risk perception, students were presented with lists of six symptoms of a fictional kind of thyroid cancer (`isthmal`).

One group got three general symptoms (such as fatigue and weight fluctuation) followed by three specific ones (e.g., lump in the neck); another the reverse order; and the third group a list alternating between general and specific.

Read the full story here