Are the buttons we push to cross streets, close elevator doors, and nudge the office thermostat really connected to anything? Some aren’t! Learn how these placebo buttons (don’t) work.
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Pushing buttons is satisfying as all heck. A button represents a modicum of control in a chaotic world. In the moment of pushing, you are the brief master of your own fate. All the forces humankind has harnessed have come to bow under your finger.
Plus, buttons are shiny.
But does pressing them always have the promised effect? Do ‘close door’ buttons in elevators and ‘push to cross’ buttons at crosswalks actually do anything? Physically speaking, the answer is ‘not always.’ Psychologically, the jury is out.
Let’s tackle the physical section first. As of 2004, a representative from the Department of Transportation in New York City said that more than 75% of their crosswalk buttons had no effect on their traffic signals.
And as of 2013 in the UK, transportation officials reported that an unknown number of crosswalk signals function automatically, regardless of whether anyone presses the button. The estimates that they could give regarding nonfunctional buttons ranged from about 18 percent to 40 percent.
But why? Many crosswalk buttons are relics of a time before signal patterns were controlled by computer systems to help streamline traffic. Removing the buttons, especially in large cities like New York, would cost millions. So the folks in charge have generally chosen to leave them standing.
In newer traffic control systems – for example, SCOOT (the Split Cycle Offset Optimisation Technique) - municipalities can program buttons to turn on only some of the time.
Think of an intersection with lots of motor traffic 24-hours a day, but pedestrian traffic mostly during business hours. During the day, when walk signals will likely be useful during every signal cycle, the buttons don’t work: The walk signal comes on automatically. At night, when fewer people are on foot, you have to press the button to stop traffic and cross the street.
Meanwhile, reports on the functionality of elevator ‘close door’ buttons vary by the source. The urban myth that they’re usually fake, or that they’re only operable with use of a key by emergency or repair personnel, seems to stem from the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990.
Its current Accessibility Guidelines specify that elevator doors must remain open for at least three seconds. In practice, this law may well render ‘close door’ buttons useless to the particularly impatient. But there’s no reason to think that they’re all – or even mostly - placebo buttons.
Yes, placebo buttons: This is the psychology term for buttons that are designed to not do anything. They’re named after the placebo effect, which my nemesis Josh Clark did a whole episode about once. In brief, the placebo effect is a confirmed phenomenon in which people experience measurable, clinical results with fake treatments due to the apparent power of their belief in the treatment.
In the world of buttons, placebos have been installed on purpose in some workplaces in the form of fake thermostats. According to an informal survey conducted by the online publication “Air Conditioning, Heating & Refrigeration News”, a majority of HVAC professionals have installed placebo thermostats during their careers. Or 51 out of 70 respondents, at any rate.
It seems that managers sometimes hope that employees who would otherwise waste time complaining about the temperature will be placated by pressing a button, even if it doesn’t change anything. After all, even the illusion of control can make us happier.