Apparently there’s such a thing as a “placebo button”

I took an elevator today. Big news, I know, but bear with me. I got in the elevator, and since there wasn’t anybody else around, I hit the “close door” button without thinking really thinking about it, just to get the elevator moving. The door closed, but no faster than it would have if I hadn’t done anything, so I started wondering if the button was just there to make impatient people like me feel better, like we’d really taken a constructive step toward saving ourselves an extra 2 seconds waiting for the door to close. For some reason I didn’t wonder why I needed to save myself that extra 2 seconds in the first place, when I had no particular place to be, and when it’s just, you know, 2 seconds.

Anyway, it turns out that “close door” buttons actually don’t work, unless you happen to be with the fire department and have one of those elevator keys to use in case of emergency (and even then, it’s not a given). Not only that, but there’s apparently a whole bunch of buttons out there, just inviting you to push them, that don’t actually do anything except make you feel better. They’re so common that they’ve even got a name: “placebo buttons.” Prepare to have your faith in the world around you shaken to the core:

According to a 2008 article in the New Yorker, close buttons don’t close the elevator doors in many elevators built in the United States since the 1990s. In some elevators the button is there for workers and emergency personnel to use, and it only works with a key. The key-only settings isn’t always active though, as the blog Design with Intent asserts. Each elevator is different. In some, the emergency function requires a long-press of several seconds longer than the average user attempts. 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.

If you happen to find yourself pressing a non-functional close-door button, and later the doors close, you’ll probably never notice because a little spurt of happiness will cascade through your brain once you see what you believe is a response to your action. Your behavior was just reinforced. You will keep pressing the button in the future.

Non-functioning mechanisms like this that motivate you to fool yourself are called placebo buttons, and they’re everywhere.

Computers and timers now control the lights at many intersections, but at one time little buttons at crosswalks allowed people to trigger the signal change. Those buttons are mostly all disabled now, but the task of replacing or removing all of them was so great most cities just left them up. You still press them though, because the light eventually changes.

In many offices and cubicle farms, the thermostat on the wall isn’t connected to anything. Landlords, engineers and HVAC specialists have installed dummy thermostats for decades to keep people from costing companies money by constantly adjusting the temperature. According to a 2003 article in the Wall Street Journal, one HVAC specialist surmised that 90 percent of all office thermostats are fake (others say it’s more like 2 percent). Some companies even install noise generators to complete the illusion after you turn the knob.

So there you go. Next time you change the thermostat at work, bear in mind that any temperature change you “feel” is probably just your brain convincing you that you changed the temperature, even though you were really working a dummy thermostat.

Probably you should still press the crosswalk button though, because why take the chance?

Author: DWD

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