How Symptoms Are Presented Online May Affect Whether We Think We Have The Disease

If you're one of those people who obsessively Googles your symptoms when you're feeling sick, you should read this.

A new study in the journal Psychological Science shows that we're more likely to think we have the sickness or disease if a number of our symptoms are listed consecutively on a website.

"People irrationally infer more meanings from a 'streak,'" study researcher Virginia Kwan, a psychologist at Arizona State University, said in a statement. It leads them to "perceive a higher personal risk of having that illness."

For the experiment, Kwan and researchers from University of California, Irvine, Ono Academic College and the University of Warwick had student study participants were introduced to six symptoms for a made-up thyroid cancer, that researchers called "isthmal."

One group of study participants received three broad symptoms (like weight changes, or fatigue) which were then followed by three specific symptoms (like having a lump in the neck). The second group of students received the same symptoms, but in reverse order -- meaning the specific symptoms were given first, followed by the broad symptoms. The third group of students received a list of symptoms that alternated between broad and specific.

The study participants were asked to check off whether they'd felt any of the symptoms before over the last six weeks, and then were asked to rate how likely they thought they were to have developed the "isthmal" cancer.

The researchers found that for the first two groups who received the "lumped" broad and specific symptoms, they rated their risk of having cancer about the same. But the group that had the alternating symptoms were less likely to say they had the cancer, according to the study.

The researchers then conducted a similar experiment, but this time with lists of six or 12 symptoms for the real cancer meningioma. The researchers found that the appearance that there was a "streak" of symptoms disappeared when 12 symptoms were listed, compared to just six.

Patients aren't the only ones Googling their symptoms -- a survey published least year by Wolters Kluwer Health showed that nearly half of doctors (46 percent of those in the study) use sites like Google and Yahoo to treat, diagnose and care for their patients.

By comparison, 68 percent of doctors said they frequently look to professional journals and 60 percent of doctors frequently go to their colleagues, according to the survey. Forty-two percent of doctors say they frequently get their information from conferences and events, and 42 percent say they frequently get their information from online health sites like the Mayo Clinic and WebMD.