It's Not a Tumor!

By Peterson, Britt | Newsweek, April 18, 2012 | Go to article overview

It's Not a Tumor!


Peterson, Britt, Newsweek


Byline: Britt Peterson

The psychology behind cyberchondria.

It's a familiar story. You feel a little under the weather, so you rush to WebMD or MedicineNet for a self-diagnosis. When you leave the sites, you're convinced your headache and minor nausea must indicate brain cancer. This kind of Web-enabled hypochondria, dubbed "cyberchondria," is becoming increasingly common as more people visit the Internet instead of the doctor's office. According to a 2009 Pew poll, 61 percent of Americans use the Internet for medical information, and other recent studies have shown wide levels of increased anxiety triggered by this habit.

But why should simply reading an online write-up about, say, Hodgkin's lymphoma convince us that we've fallen victim to the disease? A new study in the April 2012 issue of Psychological Science suggests that the irrational tendency at work in the brains of cyberchondriacs is the same as that in the brains of gamblers. Gamblers make the mistake of seeing patterns in a set of randomly generated events, deciding that a positive result on one or two rolls of the dice indicates that positive rolls of the dice will continue. For cyberchondriacs, that same tendency means deciding that hitting a streak in the list of symptoms (headache, followed by nausea, followed by fatigue) means you must also have all of the other symptoms in the list.

The researchers started by inventing a fictional type of thyroid cancer, then drew up three differently ordered lists of the same six symptoms. One list grouped the milder and more common symptoms (fatigue, shortness of breath) together at the top, with the more severe and rare symptoms (pain in the throat or neck, lump in the throat or neck) listed together at the bottom. …

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