Are media reports able to cause somatic symptoms attributed to WiFi radiation? An experimental test of the negative expectation hypothesis
People suffering from idiopathic environmental intolerance attributed to electromagnetic fields (IEI-EMF) experience numerous non-specific symptoms that they attribute to EMF. The cause of this condition remains vague and evidence shows that psychological rather than bioelectromagnetic mechanisms are at work. We hypothesized a role of media reports in the etiology of IEI-EMF and investigated how somatosensory perception is affected. 65 healthy participants were instructed that EMF exposure can lead to enhanced somatosensory perception. Participants were randomly assigned to watch either a television report on adverse health effects of EMF or a neutral report. During the following experiment, participants rated stimulus intensities of tactile (electric) stimuli while being exposed to a sham WiFi signal in 50% of the trials. Sham WiFi exposure led to increased intensity ratings of tactile stimuli in the WiFi film group, especially in participants with higher levels of somatosensory amplification. Participants of the WiFi group reported more anxiety concerning WiFi exposure than the Control group and tended to perceive themselves as being more sensitive to EMF after the experiment compared to before. Sensational media reports can facilitate enhanced perception of tactile stimuli in healthy participants. People tending to perceive bodily symptoms as intense, disturbing, and noxious seem most vulnerable. Receiving sensational media reports might sensitize people to develop a nocebo effect and thereby contribute to the development of IEI-EMF. By promoting catastrophizing thoughts and increasing symptom-focused attention, perception might more readily be enhanced and misattributed to EMF.