Study: How Information Is Presented Online Can Affect Self-Diagnoses

The way that health information is presented online -- particularly the order in which symptoms are displayed -- can affect how patients diagnose themselves, according to a study published in the journal Psychological Science, Newsroom America reports (Newsroom America, 3/16).

Study Details

For the study, researchers from Arizona State University, the University of California-Irvine, Ono Academic College and the University of Warwick conducted two experiments.

In the first experiment, researchers presented students with lists of symptoms for a fictional type of cancer. The students were asked to check off the symptoms they had experienced and rate their likelihood of having the cancer.

The students were divided into three groups, which received either:

  • A list of three general symptoms followed by three specific ones;
  • A list of three specific symptoms followed by three general ones; or
  • A list alternating between general and specific symptoms.

In the second experiment, researchers presented the students with lists of either six or 12 symptoms for meningioma, a real type of cancer. The students were divided into groups, which received one of the three types of symptom lists used in the first experiment (Association for Psychological Science release, 3/15).

Key Findings

In the experiment that looked at symptoms for the fictional type of cancer, participants who had received the list alternating between specific and general symptoms were less likely than participants receiving the other two types of lists to say that they could have cancer (Chan, "Healthy Living," Huffington Post, 3/18).

Researchers wrote that when participants check off several symptoms in a row, "they perceive a higher personal risk of having that illness" (Newsroom America, 3/16).

In the experiment that looked at symptoms for the real cancer, researchers found that participants were less likely to think that having several symptoms in a row indicated that they could have cancer if they received the list of 12 symptoms instead of the list of six ("Healthy Living," Huffington Post, 3/18).

Researchers wrote that the longer list of symptoms allowed several boxes to be left unchecked, which helped participants feel reassured that they did not have cancer (APS release, 3/15).


Virginia Kwan -- a psychologist and the lead researcher of the study -- said the findings could be useful for public health education. She said that health officials could encourage people to seek health screenings sooner by grouping common and mild symptoms together when describing a disease.

Kwan added that officials also could curb patient overreactions by listing rare symptoms first (Newsroom America, 3/16).

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