Cyberchondria: what it is and how it relates to searching for symptoms on the Internet
Let's take a look at what cyberchondria is and how it relates to the risks of searching for medical problems on the Internet.
In the digital era, we are used to carrying out all kinds of searches on the Internet to resolve a wide variety of questions.
But when these doubts have to do with health issues, we are assuming a series of risks that can sometimes be very delicate. We will explore this problem in this article, reviewing the concept of cyberchondria and its implications..
What is cybercondria?
Cybercondria, sometimes also known as compondria, is a phenomenon whereby some people, after making a search on the Internet regarding some physical symptoms they suffer (or believe they suffer), come to the conclusion that they are suffering from a certain disease.usually of a serious nature.
Most of the time, the symptoms to which they would be alluding would be very general and even diffuse, so they could fit in all kinds of clinical pictures, from the most common and mild to others really improbable statistically speaking, but which are the ones that monopolize the attention of the subject.
Thus, cyberchondria would seem to fit the pattern of cyberchondria. would seem to fit into the pattern of hypochondriasis.. Other authors also point to an excess of neuroticism in people who fall into this type of behavior. In any case, the word hypochondriasis itself is part of the term cyberchondriasis, linked to the root cyber, which refers to computer networks.
Its etymology, therefore, leaves no room for doubt, since we would be in the case of hypochondriac subjects, who would enhance their fears of suffering from various diseases through searches on Google and other similar platforms, so that they would self-validate the symptoms they would be perceiving, to assume a certain diagnosis, usually with a terrible prognosis.
In other words, a person who falls into cyberchondria will use Internet search engines to find information about any symptom he or she feels, no matter how mild it may be.. After this action, he will be able to access pages describing different clinical pictures, of varying severity. Generally, you will tend to ignore the mild ones and, on the contrary, you will be convinced that your symptom is indicative of a serious disease.
The word cyberchondriasis originated from an article in The Independent newspaper in the United Kingdom in 2001. Shortly thereafter, the BBC itself took up the baton and used the same terminology. The description given by The Independent when using this neologism was that of an exaggerated use of searches on health-related websites that resulted in an increase in anxiety.
Research on this psychological disorder
Cyberchondria is a relatively recent phenomenon, as is the widespread use of the Internet by the general population.. This hyperconnection that we have today has brought us many advantages, but it has also given rise to other situations that have a negative character, such as giving a person with a tendency to hypochondria the opportunity to seek information impulsively to reinforce their fears.
In order to learn more about this behavior, some studies have been carried out. One of them was not carried out by psychologists, but by Microsoft technicians, in 2008. These authors are Eric Horvitz and Ryen White. They decided to investigate cyberchondria, which they defined as the increase in worry due to a general symptom caused by research on search engines and websites.
What White and Horvitz did was to analyze the searches performed in this regard, to check the results that were usually found. The findings they found were disturbing. When they searched for symptoms as common and common as a headache, something that can happen to anyone for any number of reasons, the most common results referred to rare diseases and extreme and improbable possibilities, such as a brain tumor.
They also observed that the process carried out by people with cyberchondria was a cascading search, i.e., a constant search.. Moreover, it was not limited to that single session, but could extend over time for several days, even repeating itself for months, in the most extreme cases.
Let us imagine, for a moment, the anxiety to which a person can be subjected who constantly reinforces the belief that he/she has a serious ailment through searches and more searches on websites. It's a spiral that a hypochondriac may have trouble getting out of.
The authors of this study found that such searches can be done impulsively, even causing the person to stop halfway through tasks he or she was doing.. They designed a survey with which they obtained information from five hundred participants who had engaged in behaviors compatible with cyberchondria.
Most of these individuals reported anxiety symptoms from the results found in their searches on medical sites, and also expressed the belief that the illnesses found were a likely option for their symptoms. White and Horvitz found that these people tended to fall into a number of cognitive biases.
Cognitive biases of cyberchondria.
Below we will review the three main biases that the researchers in the above study found in relation to cyberchondria.
1. Availability bias
First, the survey respondents were shown to have fallen into what is known as the availability bias. This is a classic heuristic that basically consists of taking the particular case before us as the general rule that is always applicable..
In that sense, subjects who searched for symptoms and found rare and serious diseases in the first results tended to think that this was undoubtedly the most probable picture given the symptomatology they presented. We saw earlier the example of headache and tumor. This could be a paradigmatic case to visualize the availability bias.
A person searches the Internet to find out what might be happening to him, since he has been suffering from a headache for some time. Suddenly, among the first results, a website dedicated to medicine appears that talks about brain tumors and how one of the symptoms is a headache.
The person, through cyberchondria, establishes the immediate relationship and believes that what he has is a tumor, when it is evident that there are many more probable causes and that they are not serious..
2. Base rate fallacy
The second bias that can interfere with the reasoning of these people is the prime rate fallacy. In line with the previous case, subjects may attend to the particular case, such as that of the tumor, and ignore data that affect the totality of possibilities, such as the prevalence of that tumor.such as the prevalence of that type of disease.
In this example, the person would focus on this terrible diagnosis, but would not notice that the probability that he himself fits this profile is very low, while other conditions, such as fatigue, stress, or other possibilities, would be highly probable and would have a radically different prognosis.
3. Confirmation bias
Finally, to complete the effect of cyberchondria, Horvitz and White found that users tended to incur the error caused by confirmation bias, which is paradoxically logical, since they are hypochondriacs.
The way this bias works is as follows. The person has a basic preconceived idea, which in this case would be that he or she has a serious disease.. He would then perform the corresponding behavior to obtain the information about the symptoms he has, i.e., he would use Google or other search engines to find specialized websites. By finding pages describing pathologies with very negative prognoses, the person would be convinced that this is the picture that fits his situation.
That is, the confirmation bias that acts to generate cyberchondria causes these individuals to collect information that validates what they already thought beforehand. Therefore, even if along the way they find other data that may be compatible with their symptoms but do not fit with that initial thought, they are likely to discard them and continue the search.
The sum of these three heuristics is what enhances the effects of cyberchondria and causes the person to experience that anxietyThe sum of these three heuristics is what potentiates the effects of cyberchondria and makes the person experience that anxiety, being fully convinced that their mild symptom is an unmistakable sign that they are suffering from a very serious illness.
This is a matter of concern for professionals, because in addition to the suffering experienced by these individuals, they tend to request medical appointments for specialties that they do not really need, contributing to saturate the system.
- Norr, A.M., Albanese, B.J., Oglesby, M.E., Allan, N.P., Schmidt, N.B. (2015). Anxiety sensitivity and intolerance of uncertainty as potential risk factors for cyberchondria. Journal of Affective Disorders. Elsevier.
- Starcevic, V., Berle, D. (2013). Cyberchondria: towards a better understanding of excessive health-related Internet use. Expert Review of Neurotherapeutics. Taylor & Francis.
- Vismara, M., Caricasole, V., Starcevic, V., Cinosi, E., Dell'Osso, B., Martinotti, G., Fineberg, N.A. (2020). Is cyberchondria a new transdiagnostic digital compulsive syndrome? A systematic review of the evidence. Comprehensive Psychiatry. Elsevier.
- White, R.W., Horvitz, E (2009). Cyberchondria: studies of the escalation of medical concerns in web search. ACM Transactions on Information Systems (TOIS).
(Updated at Mar 28 / 2023)