Self-diagnosis via the internet — affectionately referred to as “Dr. Google” by many — may be common practice nowadays, but experts warn that seeing an actual meatspace doctor is advisable before convincing yourself you have Dengue Fever or Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease.
Googling for symptoms is such a popular activity when the doctor is not in that it’s spawned a ton of web-jokes, flowcharts and a bevy of other references to our collective bad habit of turning to the world wide web when its late at night and we feel a strange little lump on the inside of our inner forearms, slowly convincing ourselves its a tumor or blood clot lurking to kill us in our sleep.
But a new study shows that the habit can lead to unnecessary anguish for many web users, who tend to have a hard time objectively assessing their own symptoms as they would looking at another person — causing them to immediately jump to bad and scary conclusions.
Study co-author Dengfeng Yan is a doctoral student at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, and Yan explains:
“This is particularly true when the disease is rare… That is, given the same set of symptoms, people will overestimate their own likelihood of getting [rare or serious] diseases than that of other people.”
Yan and a co-researcher studied a group of college students to determine whether sets of symptoms correlated to a “commonplace” disease — flu was an example — or a more hyped-up, scarier one like H1N1. When the students were asked to consider the symptoms as their own, they were far likelier to believe the more severe condition was responsible.
The study was published online in the Journal of Consumer Research, and will be available in the print version in early 2013.