Complementary medicines, traditional remedies and home cures for medical ailments are used extensively world-wide, representing more than US$60 billion sales in the global market. With serious doubts about the efficacy and safety of many treatments, the industry remains steeped in controversy. Little is known about factors affecting the prevalence of efficacious and non-efficacious self-medicative treatments. Here we develop mathematical models which reveal that the most efficacious treatments are not necessarily those most likely to spread. Indeed, purely superstitious remedies, or even maladaptive practices, spread more readily than efficacious treatments under specified circumstances. Low-efficacy practices sometimes spread because their very ineffectiveness results in longer, more salient demonstration and a larger number of converts, which more than compensates for greater rates of abandonment. These models also illuminate a broader range of phenomena, including the spread of innovations, medical treatment of animals, foraging behaviour, and self-medication in non-human primates
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