Pressing the placebo buttons

posted at 11:01 am on August 4, 2013 by Jazz Shaw

A brief break from the politics on Sunday morning for one of those social science stories that make you go hmmm. How many buttons (aside from the keys on your TV remote, computer, tablet or phone) do you press in a given week when you’re out in public? Some of the most common ones that come to mind, at least for urban denizens who walk around the city and go up and down in buildings, are the crosswalk buttons at traffic intersections and the CLOSE DOOR and OPEN DOOR buttons in elevators. Do you press them? And if so, have you ever wondered if they really do anything?

Ever stood at an intersection and prodded at, leaned on, elbowed and otherwise palm-slapped the ever-living hell out of a crosswalk button and wondered to yourself if the thing actually does anything at all, really? Well – chances are, it doesn’t.

In a piece that will make you question every publicly accessible switch, toggle and button you encounter from this day forth, the folks at You Are Not So Smart reveal the truth about so-called “placebo buttons,” the triggers we’ve been conditioned since birth to associate with instantaneous gratification that actually do nothing. Crosswalk buttons. Thermostats. The close-door buttons in elevators. Why do placebo buttons exist? Because they are remarkably effective psychologically. And they are everywhere.

The You Are Not So Smart article linked there is fairly long, but I definitely recommend it if you’re looking for some good reading material this weekend. The crosswalk buttons are, perhaps, the more visible example of this phenomenon – assuming it’s true – but the reason for the elevator buttons being placebos was even more interesting for me.

The website, The Straight Dope, investigated the issue in 1986 by asking elevator companies and elevator repairmen directly. According to their investigation, “The grim truth is that a significant percentage of the close-door buttons in this world…don’t do anything at all.” The reasons cited were that the button was never wired up, or that it was set to a delay, or was deactivated by the owner, or it broke long ago and no one ever complained because the doors eventually close whether or not you press the buttons.

But not all of the examples are cases of buttons which were broken, improperly installed or designed with excessive delay times. Between the two articles I linked above, there are multiple examples of places where administrators – both government and private – knowingly and purposefully installed dummy buttons or made other design changes just to get the desired reaction from workers or customers. One office installed a thermostat that did nothing just to get a worker to stop complaining about the temperature. An airport was tired of people complaining about how long they waited at the baggage carousel, so they moved the arrival gates further away from baggage claim.

Question for discussion: does this story have the ring of truth to it for you? And if so, can you think of any other examples? The first one that jumped to mind for me was the “clear print job” on the printer which you frantically try to push after accidentally sending the entire 370 page pdf to the laser jet instead of just page 59. In the end I always wind up unplugging it anyway.


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A brief break from the politics

Poor, poor, gunter. He’ll be so upset at you Jazz. Lol!

Bmore on August 4, 2013 at 11:07 AM

I thought this was about our “reset” with Russia.

Flange on August 4, 2013 at 11:07 AM

Well, the tea parties started pushing the Congresscritter button years ago and nothing has happened. If it’s a placebo button, it’s failing because the tea parties are pounding it even harder as time goes on.

O/T: Go Nancy Mace.

platypus on August 4, 2013 at 11:09 AM

Hogwash. I happen to be building security and once a month as part of the routine fire operation inspection I manually switch each of our five elevators to individual service, which changes the elevator operating system so that the doors will REMAIN OPEN permanently (when the elevator is stopped at a floor) until the operator presses the close door button and holds it down. Once the doors close, the operator can go to whatever desired floor he wishes. This is standard on most elevators. I can see street crossing buttons being placebos, but elevators? Hardly.

eyesights on August 4, 2013 at 11:09 AM

A brief break from the politics on Sunday morning for one of those social science stories that make you go hmmm.

Tech posts are better.

nobar on August 4, 2013 at 11:10 AM

I thought this was about our “reset” with Russia.

Flange on August 4, 2013 at 11:07 AM

That button didn’t work either. Or, it just has a 25 year delay.

BacaDog on August 4, 2013 at 11:12 AM

The close door buttons in most hospitals work — immediately.

And I can get the flashing red hand had to go back to the white walking person if I press the crosswalk button soon enough — just don’t cross before looking because some driver may have started his or her turn while the flashing red hand was flashing…

So, while the placebo effect is obvious in may places, it isn’t universal.

unclesmrgol on August 4, 2013 at 11:17 AM

The crosswalk buttons around here (central Illinois) are not placebos. If you press them, you get an all way red light (all lights turn red) at the next light change. If you don’t press it, you get the normal 2 way red light.

Annoying Old Guy on August 4, 2013 at 11:20 AM

Many crosswalk buttons only really work in the off-hours, late at night when 99.9% of the traffic is just cars moving along. The lights will be green for the cars unless the rare late-night pedestrian wants to cross the street and presses the button. Then the lights will turn green for the pedestrian.

During normal day time traffic conditions the lights work on a timer system so that auto traffic can move along at around 30 to 35 mph and not hit a red light. During these times the buttons do nothing.

sultanp on August 4, 2013 at 11:24 AM

The ‘Pivot To The Economy And Big Up The Middle Class’ button is getting quite the workout. ‘Expose Government Corruption And Collusion’ is still in shrinkwrap.

jangle12 on August 4, 2013 at 11:25 AM

I can see street crossing buttons being placebos, but elevators? Hardly.

eyesights on August 4, 2013 at 11:09 AM

Nope. Unless broken, most street crossing buttons are actually time delays. They don’t speed up the changing of the light to green but lengthen the amount of time the light stays green once it’s changed to allow people more time to cross the street. Also, if installed, they can also trigger the “Walk”, “Don’t Walk” signs.

Pushing them more than once does nothing

Rod on August 4, 2013 at 11:27 AM

Around here (Maryland and D.C.), most roads are set up with asphalt-based sensors for cars, so that the left turn arrow goes on only if a car is sensed, waiting to make a left turn. There are also sensors at intersections of busy roads with not-busy roads, and the lights don’t change unless a car is there on the not-busy road waiting for a green light. In many cases, the crossing button serves the function of a car at the sensor. The light will change, though not immediately; it will change at the regular cycle point. If you don’t press the button, the light won’t change until a car shows up. So here, not placebo but not an instant solution either.

Attila (Pillage Idiot) on August 4, 2013 at 11:27 AM

Why do placebo buttons exist? Because they are remarkably effective psychologically.

Agree, of course.

Why do you think they have mirrors at elevators?

faraway on August 4, 2013 at 11:29 AM

Every time I see a presser by Jay Carney or a speech by B.O. or his trained dogs Pelosi and Reid, I hit the “panic button” but nothing ever seems to happen:)

Clink on August 4, 2013 at 11:24 AM

The thing happens when I go in the voting booth, and vote for the GOP.

faraway on August 4, 2013 at 11:31 AM

Remote OFF button when O’benghazi’s mug shows up on the tube…

hillsoftx on August 4, 2013 at 11:31 AM

A few anecdotes from the past: Way back when hospitals first went from hand processing x-ray film (which could be somewhat speeded up) to automatic processing, the doctors waiting for x-rays were insufferable, to the point where they would enter the darkroom and change the speed control, therefore irritating the technician to no end. One savvy technician took a round knob with an arrow on it and placed it on the OUTSIDE of the darkroom on the processor and labeled it faster and slower. The brilliant doctors then spent all their time turning the knob instead of harassing the technicians.

I adapted this to industry and put one on our industrial processor. The 4-men were satisfied to just stand and twist the knob, waiting for the radiographs. In the early days of the desktop computer, they were all quite slow. I had a dumber than average data entry/secretary who spent all her time swearing at the slowness of the computer, so I glued a little red dot on her monitor with “go-faster” written on it. In stead of listening to her cuss out the screen, I got to watch her sit and futilely push the red dot.

Life is good when you are having fun.

Old Country Boy on August 4, 2013 at 11:32 AM

I thought this was about our “reset” with Russia.
Flange on August 4, 2013 at 11:07 AM

That button didn’t work either. Or, it just has a 25 year delay.
BacaDog on August 4, 2013 at 11:12 AM

In the case of Obama/Clinton, the “close door” button was incompetently wired to the “open door” circuit.

turfmann on August 4, 2013 at 11:32 AM

Ever stood at an intersection and prodded at, leaned on, elbowed and otherwise palm-slapped the ever-living hell out of a crosswalk button and wondered to yourself if the thing actually does anything at all, really? Well – chances are, it doesn’t.

I’ll bet most people figured that one out they were kids, it’s obvious they don’t do anything.

clearbluesky on August 4, 2013 at 11:39 AM

How about the buttons in the voting booth?

Seems no matter which one you push, we almost always wind up with w pile of crap.

catmman on August 4, 2013 at 11:40 AM

Old Country Boy on August 4, 2013 at 11:32 AM

Lol!

Bmore on August 4, 2013 at 11:40 AM

The first one that jumped to mind for me was the “clear print job” on the printer which you frantically try to push after accidentally sending the entire 370 page pdf to the laser jet instead of just page 59.

Or the “Windows is searching for a solution to the problem” window after a program stops responding, i’ve yet to see it actually find a solution, but hey, it’s lookin’ for one, they promise, for realz.

clearbluesky on August 4, 2013 at 11:41 AM

Or the “Windows is searching for a solution to the problem” window after a program stops responding, i’ve yet to see it actually find a solution, but hey, it’s lookin’ for one, they promise, for realz.

clearbluesky on August 4, 2013 at 11:41 AM

There is no solution. The CANCEL button is a placebo. I’ve tried it many times.

Attila (Pillage Idiot) on August 4, 2013 at 11:46 AM

Actually, surprisingly the crosswalk buttons in Everett work. They don’t actually stop traffic, or even shorten the wait. What they do is make the crosswalk light switch to green when the traffic light changes. They will also change the timer so that you can cross before the traffic computer allows the left turn signal to activate.

Voila, not much, I know, but still something to kinda sorta justify the massive amount of money dumped into the system.

However, unless you live in Libby, Montana which has a grand total of five traffic lights, Everett’s traffic system is way above average. Drive through Lynnwood or Marysville, or even Snohomish and compare.

Rode Werk on August 4, 2013 at 11:52 AM

And if so, can you think of any other examples?

In the late 1960s, Volvo’s then-new 240 series cars had pre-adjusted, sealed carburetors. Each carburetor had a knurled screw that screwed into an empty sheet metal box. The factory called this “the owner’s screw.” It was there because many owners, particularly Europeans were used to constantly fiddling with the finicky SU carburetors in the previous Volvo models, and Volvo wanted to give them something to do while at the same time preserving the preset, sealed jetting.

bgoldman on August 4, 2013 at 11:56 AM

“Dial one for English” and then you get “tech support” from Mumbai.
~(Ä)~

Karl Magnus on August 4, 2013 at 11:56 AM

Life is good when you are having fun.

Old Country Boy on August 4, 2013 at 11:32 AM

*chuckle*
Sometimes, that’s the best one can expect.
~(Ä)~

Karl Magnus on August 4, 2013 at 11:59 AM

I have experience of one crosswalk which *does* actually listen to the button. I always thought the buttons didn’t do anything and had a weird Pavlovian vibe to them, so I would ignore them. At one light near work, I stood at a corner, waiting for the walk light…and it never came. If you don’t push the button, the cars get to go, but walkers don’t. After at least one full cycle of lights, I gave in and pushed it. I got the walk sign the next time the lights cycled around to my turn.

I’m sure some of them are b.s., but some are real.

HakerA on August 4, 2013 at 12:03 PM

One time, on a trip as a Flight Engineer, both pilots were messing with the cockpit temperature control on the overhead panel. That’s my panel, so I went to manual control and set the temp where I was comfortable and those two continued to “adjust” the temperature. Three hours later, somewhere over the North Atlantic, they noticed their inputs weren’t having an affect. My words were something to the effect “don’t mess with my eff’n overhead panel”.

TulsAmerican on August 4, 2013 at 12:04 PM

“Dial one for English” and then you get “tech support” from Mumbai.
~(Ä)~

Karl Magnus on August 4, 2013 at 11:56 AM

LOL The other that gets on my nerves is “this call may be recorded for quality purposes”

bluefox on August 4, 2013 at 12:07 PM

…fake orgasms!

KOOLAID2 on August 4, 2013 at 12:12 PM

…fake orgasms!

KOOLAID2 on August 4, 2013 at 12:12 PM

.
What progtards should expect upon hearing a speech from Dear Leader, Alex ?

FlaMurph on August 4, 2013 at 12:22 PM

…fake orgasms!

KOOLAID2 on August 4, 2013 at 12:12 PM

Sorry … Ya gotta press the right “button”. *chuckle*
~(Ä)~

Karl Magnus on August 4, 2013 at 12:25 PM

I’ve been hitting that “close door” button for years.

My entire life is a sham.

joekenha on August 4, 2013 at 12:47 PM

My wife worked for a number of years as a church secretary. Women would constantly come in and complain that the building was either too hot or too cold. Eventually, one of the elders went to Home Depot and bought a thermostat, then mounted it on the wall. It was hooked to nothing. It did nothing. But every time someone complained about the temperature, my wife would suggest that they feel free to adjust the thermostat without asking. And feel free to do so in the future as well. After that, no one complained, they just adjusted the thermostat.

oldleprechaun on August 4, 2013 at 12:49 PM

to Platypus, I beg to differ.
The tea party types are still in the GOP, pounding on that same “placebo button” instead of even organizing a lifeboat committee.
Until there is a realistic third party threat to the GOP, offering “the placebo button” instead of actual actions continues to allow the Establishment “R”s both more time in power personally and time to drill more holes in the bottom of the boat (in a fully bipartisan effort with the Dems) “to let the water out”.

jhnone on August 4, 2013 at 12:53 PM

I feel that the republican vote button is non-working. I keep pressing it, but I keep getting RINOs and Obamas.

Wino on August 4, 2013 at 12:59 PM

to Platypus, I beg to differ.
The tea party types are still in the GOP, pounding on that same “placebo button” instead of even organizing a lifeboat committee.
Until there is a realistic third party threat to the GOP, offering “the placebo button” instead of actual actions continues to allow the Establishment “R”s both more time in power personally and time to drill more holes in the bottom of the boat (in a fully bipartisan effort with the Dems) “to let the water out”.

jhnone on August 4, 2013 at 12:53 PM

Any “lifeboat committee” is an advantage to the Democrats. Any third party is an advantage to the Democrats. Just ask Bill Clinton.

You and yours may think that the GOP is Democrat-lite, but it isn’t. Guys on your short list such as Rand Paul would have stood no chance without the brand, but were able to secure the nomination. Try doing that within any Democratic organization and see how far you get.

Sure, names like the Libertarian Party or the Constitution Party sound nice, but in terms of providing a big enough tent to get their candidates elected — fat chance.

unclesmrgol on August 4, 2013 at 1:05 PM

I use the “Door Hold” button to make the elevator wait while I drop off my package on the shipping desk. I get back in, and use the “Door Close” button to cancel the “Door Hold” command. Pretty simple. Sure, the door close function is likely to do nothing to make the doors close faster after it just opened up and you got in, but that’s likely because the elevator is in good condition and efficient and is already closing in a timely manner.

MadisonConservative on August 4, 2013 at 1:45 PM

Waaay back when I was an ET on the Coast Guard Barque Eagle, The Surface Search Radar(SPS-64) had a knob that was supposed to adjust the receiver gain. It did nothing, so I always had to open it up and adjust it on the board.

I wondered about that and finally compared the potentiometer that knob attached to to the schematic. I discovered a modification had been made. Someone in the past had bridged the potentiometer with a resistor so that the pot had very little effect on overall resistance, turning the knob into a placebo. After consulting with my superiors and investigating to the point of calling all prior ETs I could not find out who made the change. My shop boss didn’t want to change it back to spec until he knew why it was modified. It took a month and intervention by the CO when he found out about it to get permission to return it to spec.
Intervention:
CO: (Holding my report) Epps! Fix it!
Me: Aye-Aye! Sir!
(two snips with diagonal cutters and twenty minutes of tweaking later)
Me: SPS-64 is running in spec, Captain.
CO: Thank you, Petty Officer Epps.

Random Numbers (Brian Epps) on August 4, 2013 at 2:12 PM

I know a placebo is the little button which (supposedly) turns off the refrigerator light when you shut the door.

tommyboy on August 4, 2013 at 2:51 PM

New Orleans used to have tons of “cameras” mounted in the high crime areas of the French Quarter. Turned out that they were just boxes with pretty lights hooked up to them. That didn’t stop the Police from claiming that they worked to deter crime (and they might have) but they certainly didn’t provide any help in solving crime.

Happy Nomad on August 4, 2013 at 2:58 PM

I would just like to know what fools ever thought the close door button, or those crosswalk buttons ever worked? It doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to realize their functionality was near zero.

DFCtomm on August 4, 2013 at 3:15 PM

I’ve got one for all you guys who are feeling disappointed by the close door button not working, but this might also explain why the close door button doesn’t work. There is an elevator hack that can be used with the close door button that is very nice. Google it.

DFCtomm on August 4, 2013 at 3:19 PM

I keep wondering how far away we are from the dystopian societies presented in A Clockwork Orange and Soylent Green:

- What was your name again? – Charles.

– Charles what? – Just Charles.

It’s perfectly legal.

God. We haven’t had any trouble here in years. Not years.

The scanners and alarms went out of order last Thursday.

– Come on. Let’s have a look. – Yes. It was Thursday.

The problem is parts.

The original manufacturer’s out of business. Our men fabricate replacements.

Takes them forever. Just forever.

Nothing works. Not really. You can’t believe the problems I have.

Dr. ZhivBlago on August 4, 2013 at 3:25 PM

In audio engineering, we have what we call “The Phantom Knob.” When dealing with a really finicky producer or client, who’s constantly asking for minor, nickle-dime, barely audible adjustments to the mix, we often reach for a knob on a channel that’s not in use, make an adjustment, and ask, “How’s that?”

Invariably, the other person will say, after leaning into the speakers a little, “Yeah, that’s good.”

CurtZHP on August 4, 2013 at 4:44 PM

On the subject of elevator buttons, nothing makes me want to slap someone like this:

You enter an empty elevator lobby and push the ‘Up’ or ‘Down’ call button. It clearly lights up, and you wait for an elevator. Someone else enters the lobby and pushes the exact same ALREADY LIT button, as if your push of that button just isn’t going to get the job done. The elevator was just kidding with you when you pushed it; but now that The Privileged Character has showed up and pushed the button, the elevator is going to take him seriously and arrive immediately.

Oh, and morons of the world, take note. Pushing it repeatedly won’t make the little man in the attic turn the crank any faster.

CurtZHP on August 4, 2013 at 4:49 PM

eyesights on August 4, 2013 at 11:09 AM

Yes, the above person is absolutely correct. The “open” and “close” buttons on an elevator have two specific purposes. One is for the elevator service technician and the other is for the fireman.

The service tech has a key to allow him to switch the elevator into service mode where it will go to whatever floor selected and the door will remain open until the “close” button is pushed. A fireman’s key will also take the elevator to whatever floor selected but the doors will remain closed until the “open” button is pressed. This can prevent the door from opening on a floor that too dangerous. Both key positions prevent the elevator from responding to lobby call buttons.

The “open” button can keep a door open for a normal operating condition but usually there is an audible alarm noise that goes off If it is open too long. The only way to keep a door open under normal conditions is to block it open and the alarm will be sounding the entire time.

In the building tech circles, the terms “BPI” and “KTI” refer to “button pushing idiots” and “knob twisting idiots” and they are the reason that many placebos are put in place…they are going to do it anyway so their activity may as well be rendered harmless.

trapeze on August 4, 2013 at 5:32 PM

I once was stopped on my motorcycle at a quiet intersection. The sensors didn’t pick me up, and after waiting not-so patiently for 5+ minutes, I walked over and pressed the crosswalk button. Green light.

Free Constitution on August 4, 2013 at 7:25 PM

Esc

justltl on August 5, 2013 at 11:50 AM