September 16, 2009

Popular because it does not work

Intuitively, you would think that if something works its use would spread fast and if it doesn't work its use would not spread fast wouldn't you? The argument is often used: "If X does not work, like you say, how do you explain that so many people use it?" The argument is so appealing because it seems to fit with basic evolutionary principles. After all, evolution says that variants that are more adapted will become more common, while variants which are not well adapted will become rarer. And doesn't the fact that something works mean that it is well adapted? Well, then, an approach that works should become more common, an approach that doesn't work should become more rare. Right? Well, not exactly. Reality sometimes has some counterintuitive features.

Mark Tanaka, a mathematical biologist from Sydney did a study which explains why ineffective medical treatments persist in the face of better proven methods. He found that quack treatments could spread more quickly than proven treatments. The explanation is this counterintuitive finding is that people pick up treatments by observing what other people use and following that. Whether that is an effective treatment usually hardly plays a role. This mechanism creates an unexpected advantage for ineffective treatments. The fact that ineffective treatments don't work means that people who use them will be around longer. After all, effective treatments take away the problem and the need for it to be used. This means that there are more people left to be observed using ineffective treatments than effective treatments which will lead to more people copying them. This means that ineffectiveness of a treatment may be the very cause of its popularity.

Read more: Quack remedies spread by virtue of being useless


  1. Wonderful post! ... This makes more clear the affair that the medical industry (all them MDs) have with anti-anxiety and anti-depressant medications ... they must work, mustn't they ... how about you try this new one as it impacts a different neurotransmitter than the last ... wanna try two? And yet, talk therapy, in combination with them meds has an similar recovery rate ...

  2. Very interesting idea. It's definitely counter intuitive but makes sense once you think about it. I once had a problem with depression and anxiety and I used many ideas to overcome it most of which met with limited success. I then applied ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) and both issues have been gone for nearly 3 years since then. I hardly talk about it or recommend it because I stopped using those techniques and the problems are still gone.

  3. I would like to see many clients become more critical in evaluating the effectiveness of coaching and therapy. it is very important that the clients experiences that the help offered is actually helpful. If not, something else should be tried.


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