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
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
“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.
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.
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
“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.
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.”
“(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.”
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 “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.”