What happens when we turn online for diagnosis

The order in which symptoms of a disease are listed on a website makes a significant difference to our perceptions about whether we have the disease or not

The internet has empowered us. A horde of information is available at our finger-tips. And we don’t hesitate in using it in any area of our lives, especially when it comes to health. At the slightest sign of illness, most of us are quick to go online and check for symptoms and try to self-diagnose. But recent research has found that online health information affects personal health decisions.

Illustration of a man sitting with a laptop
Don’t rely on symptoms listed on health websites to self-diagnose

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. The way symptoms are listed affects whether we feel we are at risk of a specific disease. The researchers found that when symptoms are listed as a streak—one after the other in a row, they perceive a higher personal risk of having that illness.

People are more likely to screen themselves for a disease if common and mild symptoms are grouped together on a website. The researchers suggest that when rare symptoms are mentioned at the top of the list, it limits overreaction.

The study appears in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

While this research gives invaluable inputs to websites on structuring symptoms, it helps laypeople understand that their perception of risk for a particular condition depends on the way information is listed on a website. So, it’s wise to simply use the website as reference and avoid forming any opinions about one’s health without first consulting a physician.
Association for Psychological Science


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