Date of this Version
Psychological Science 23:4 (April 2012), pp. 381–385.
People are quick to perceive meaningful patterns in the co-occurrence of events. We report two studies exploring the effects of streaks in symptom checklists on perceived personal disease risk. In the context of these studies, a streak is a sequence of consecutive items on a list that share the characteristic of being either general or specific. We identify a psychological mechanism underlying the effect of streaks in a list of symptoms and show that the effect of streaks on perceived risk varies with the length of the symptom list. Our findings reveal a tendency to infer meaning from streaks in medical and health decision making. Participants perceived a higher personal risk of having an illness when presented with a checklist in which common symptoms were grouped together than when presented with a checklist in which these same symptoms were separated by rare symptoms. This research demonstrates that something as arbitrary as the order in which symptoms are presented in a checklist can affect perceived risk of disease.