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.

Tags: science