Cyberchondria: Too Much Bad News

According to the New York Times, health-related Web searches are making us unecessarily anxious. A Microsoft study released on Monday reveals that search engines often lead people to fear the “worst about what ails them.” Web searches for medical problems are “as likely or more likely” to lead people to pages describing serious conditions as benign ones, even though the more serious illnesses are much more rare. For instance, a search for the term “headache” retrieved as many articles about brain tumors as those discussing caffeine withdrawal, even though the chance of having a brain tumor is extremely small. According to artificial intelligence researcher Eric Horvitz, people trust search engines to produce information as a human expert would and tend to look at just the first couple of results in a given search. When a search for “headache” produces “brain tumor” or “A.L.S.” in its first few results, people seize on these terms as their “launching point.” As a result, more than half of the study participants said that online medical queries had interrupted their day-to-day activities and made them anxious. And a third of the subjects escalated their follow-up searches to explore serious illnesses.

Our tendency to jump to awful conclusions is well-established. As behavioral economics literature suggests, an array of psychological undercurrents influence our behavior and decision making. For instance, the phenomenon of diagnosis bias causes us to ignore evidence that contradicts our initial assessment of a situation. (Anecdotally, Dr. Horvitz recalled his “medical schoolitis:” his tendency to believe that he suffered from the rare and incurable diseases that he studied in medical school.) And, as the Microsoft study suggests, we suffer from automation bias–the tendency to believe computer decisions in the face of contradictory evidence.

Microsoft hopes to refine its search engines to detect medical inquiries and offer advice that would not automatically make Web searchers jump to the worst conclusions, thus serving as more of an adviser than a blind information retrieval tool. Given the move to personalize our searches based on our prior activity, the question remains whether new developments can alleviate the anxious (like the Woody Allen character Mickey in “Hannah and Her Sisters”) from running into doctors offices to get CAT scans at the first sign of a headache.

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