Amira Ghenai, PhD candidate
David R. Cheriton School of Computer Science
People increasingly rely on the Internet in order to search for health-related information. Searching for information about medical treatments is among the most frequent uses of search engines. While being a convenient and fast method to collect information, search engines have a content bias towards web pages stating that treatments are helpful, regardless of the truth. The presence of incorrect information in search results might potentially cause harm, especially if people believe what they read without further research or professional medical advice.
In this work, we aim to understand the decision making process of determining the efficacy of medical treatments using search result pages. We use a think-aloud study in order to gain insights on strategies people use during online search for health-related topics. We found that, different from what was expected, even when participants are more conscious about their decisions (during the think-aloud process), search engine results can significantly influence them both positively and negatively. Importantly, people pay a large amount of attention to what the majority of search results state to make up their decisions.
The implications of such potentially dangerous behavior are profound when searching for serious medical conditions' treatment where search engines have a bias towards stating treatments are helpful. Further, people look for clues for authoritativeness and content quality when evaluating online content. Rank and optimism bias towards treatments being helpful are potential subconscious biases the think-aloud study fails to catch which shows how complex is the phenomenon of understanding cognitive biases in online health search.
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