Why the world is full of buttons that don’t work

Why the world is full of buttons that don't work

Have you ever pressed the pedestrian button at a crosswalk and wondered if it really worked? Or hit the “Close the door” button in an elevator, suspecting that it might, in fact, have no effect?

You are not alone and you may be right. The world is full of buttons that do nothing.

They are sometimes called “placebo buttons” – buttons that are mechanically sound and can be pushed, but do not provide any functionality. Like placebo pills, however, these pimples can still serve a purpose, according to Ellen Langer, a Harvard psychologist who pioneered a concept known as the “illusion of control.”

“They have a psychological effect,” she said in a telephone interview. “Taking action makes people feel in control, and it feels good, rather than just being a passive spectator.

“Doing something is usually better than doing nothing.”

Do not work

In New York, only 100 of the 1,000 crosswalk buttons actually work, a spokesman for the city’s Department of Transportation confirmed in an email. This number has decreased regularly in recent years: when the New york times revealed that the majority of New York buttons did not work in 2004, about 750 were still operational.

Increased traffic can be the source of change. Pedestrian crossing signals were generally installed before congestion reached current levels and, over time, they began to interfere with the complex coordination of traffic lights.

But while their function has been taken over by more advanced systems – such as automated lights or traffic sensors – the physical buttons have often been retained, rather than being replaced at additional cost.

A pedestrian crossing in London. Credit: Journal / UIG / Getty Images

Other cities, like Boston, Dallas and Seattle, went through a similar process, leaving them their own placebo pedestrian buttons. In London, which has 6,000 traffic lights, pressing the pedestrian button results in a reassuring “Wait” light. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the “green man” – or “pedestrian step” in the terminology of traffic light design – will appear sooner.

“We have level crossings where the green light comes on automatically, but we always ask people to press the button as it activates accessible functionality,” said Glynn Barton, director of network management at Transport for London, in a telephone interview.

These features, such as tactile paving and audible traffic lights, help visually impaired people cross the road and are only activated when the button is pressed. As for the lights, an increasing number of them are now integrated into a electronic system which detects traffic and adjusts the intervals accordingly (giving priority to buses in case of delay, for example), which means that pressing the button has no effect.

Others, on the other hand, only respond to the button at certain times of the day.

“But in most cases, pressing the button will call the pedestrian stage,” said Barton.

Close the door?

What about the most pressed button of all: the “closed door” in elevators? If you live in the United States, it almost certainly does not work.

“Put simply, the riding public will not be able to close the doors faster using this button,” said Kevin Brinkman of the National Elevator Industry in an email.

But there is a very good reason for this: the Americans with Disabilities Act 1990. “This legislation required that the doors of an elevator remain open long enough for anyone with a disability or mobility problems, such as crutches or a wheelchair, to be able to board the cabin safely “said Brinkman.
Buttons found on elevators.

Buttons found on elevators. Credit: praphab louilarpprasert / Shutterstock

So, unless the scheduled boarding time has been reached, pressing the button will do nothing. It is only available for firefighters, emergency personnel and maintenance personnel, who can override the deadline with a key or code.

Outside the United States, the button is more likely – but not for certain – to work.

“The functionality of the button – whether or not it closes the door earlier – is determined by the building code or the customer,” said Robin Fiala of Otis, the world’s largest elevator manufacturer, in an e -mail.

Too hot to handle

Hotel room thermostats are known for limit the temperature range accessible to users, thereby reducing energy costs. The practice is not limited to hotels, according to Robert Bean of American Society of Heating and Air Conditioning Engineers. But that’s not strictly a bad thing, because air temperature, which most thermostats control, is just one piece of the thermal puzzle.

“In the absence of control over other parameters, air temperature is often a poor indicator of thermal comfort,” he said. In other words: total control does not necessarily equate to more comfort.

Sometimes, however, thermostats can be misleading by design. Some models even include a “placebo function” option.
Office thermostats are not always operational.

Office thermostats are not always operational. Credit: Martin Keene / PA Images / Getty Images

“Research on thermal comfort shows that when people perceive temperature control in their spaces, some can tolerate higher levels of discomfort,” said Bean.

“If a non-functional thermostat (placebo) or a limited-function thermostat is installed, the mere fact of being able to handle it can affect his perception.”

Dummy thermostats – those that are not connected to the system at all – can also be found in offices, according to Donald Prather of Air Conditioning Contractors of America.

“(They) were placed there to calm a constant complainant by giving him control,” he said in an email. “As an engineering intern, I was sent to calibrate one. When I asked why they had me calibrate a thermostat that was not plugged in, they panicked and asked if I said to the occupant that he was not connected.

“After assuring them that I hadn’t spilled the beans, they admitted that by not telling me it was disconnected, they thought I would be doing a more realistic calibration show.”

Good buttons

According to Langer, the placebo buttons have a net positive effect on our lives, because they give us the illusion of control – and something to do in situations where the alternative would do nothing (which is why people press the elevator call button when it is already lit).

Buttons can give people an

Buttons can give people an “illusion of control.” Credit: Fox Photos / Hulton Archives / Getty Images

In the case of pedestrian crossings, they can even make us safer by forcing us to pay attention to our environment. And finally, pressing a button does not require much effort.

“When you think about it, it’s such a small response that, even if it has no effect, it has little cost,” said Langer. “I think it’s a shame if people call it a” placebo button “and, by that name, think people are behaving stupidly. Hidden in this (term) is the belief that people are stupid to press them – or mean to put buttons that are useless in the first place.

“They at least serve a psychological purpose,” she added, “and sometimes they have an effect.”


Recommended For You

About the Author: Aygen

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *