You notice a little pain, a weird lump, a red splotchy rash…and you run right to your computer and Google your symptoms. A few minutes later, you’re in a frenzy, convinced you have lyme disease or diabetes or colon cancer. I do it, you do it, pretty much everyone spends at least a little time with Dr. Google these days. But a new study is out to prove why this behavior is dangerous: because using the internet to self-diagnose results in many, many, more cases of misdiagnosis. That’s right, Googling hypchondriacs, you are more likely to believe you have a serious illness because you’re focusing on the symptoms, rather than on the likelihood you actually have a crazy disease.
A new study out from Hong Kong University of Science and Technology shows how the cognitive bias of our brains contributes to our tendency to overestimate our symptoms, especially when using technology. The authors of the study presented subjects (university students) with different scenarios of illnesses, including the flu, hepatitis C, and breast cancer.
The authors then provided different sets of information about the incidences of these illnesses in the population, which is called “base risk,” and also “case risk,” which is one person’s profile of symptoms associated with an illness. Participants in the study tended to judge themselves higher on risk factors, showing that humans are biased: we tend to perceive ourselves as vulnerable even when the fact-based evidence isn’t there. That means you, as an individual, more likely to think your symptoms represent swine flu even though they’re actually probably related to the common cold.
The authors of the study concluded:
One of the easiest ways to get rid of this bias is to see a real doctor instead of Dr. Google. A real doctor possesses much more knowledge and will take the prevalence of a disease into consideration because she is viewing the patient from a distance. This will prevent symptoms from exerting a disproportionate influence on the diagnosis.
Hear that, y’all? When you’re sick, stay off the internet. Plugging your symptoms into a search engine will only make you more anxious and more likely to misdiagnose yourself with something you probably don’t have. Your best bet is to visit your local urgent care center or call your doctor—no more Google!