Why Do People Push Placebo Buttons?

Placebo buttons are buttons that actually do nothing except give the user an illusion of control.

The advent of computer-controlled traffic signals make the walk buttons at pedestrian crossings on heavily trafficked streets obsolete. By the late 1980s, most (but not all) walk buttons in New York City have been deactivated yet people push them anyhow, either in ignorance, out of habit, or in the off chance the buttons did work.

Many large office buildings also have dummy thermostats to give office workers the illusion of control. Some even go as far as installing white-noise generators to mimic the hum of fans after the HVAC system is shut off.

The same goes for the close button in elevators. Most elevators built or installed since the early 1990s don't have close buttons that work, unless you have a fireman's key. People do push them anyhow, because the fact that the door eventually closes reinforces their belief that the button works.


In Toronto I know at least some of the crosswalk buttons work - there's one on my way to work that if you don't push it, then you don't get a walk symbol at all. And every building I've lived in the door close button definitely works - the door will stay open about 30 seconds if you don't push it, but close right away if you do.

I don't have a thermostat that I can access at work, but I'd believe that one - I've called maintenance guys to fix the temp in my office so many times and they always assure me it's 21C.. even though my fingernails are turning blue!
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I used to work in a bullding co-occupied my military folk. The elevators all had the 'close-door' buttons enabled, and the sliding glass doors on the front of the building would not open without a swipe card - or stay open if someone walked into the beam. Despite the numerous warning signs about the doors, there would be a 'Maxwell Smart' incident at least twice a week, as someone would smack their nose on the glass as the door shut.
Funny.
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In my town, the street-crossing buttons work quite well. Pressing one turns the light immediately unless the light has only just changed to green for the main road. If you DON'T press it, it will stay that way until you do or until a car trips the sensor in the road.

AND, our elevator buttons work fine too....

I guess the bottom line is: push the button and hope. It takes a whole one second and might save you quite a while at a stoplight.
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Zeytoun wins this thread with common sense.

Is it really a mystery why people push buttons? It isn't really a placebo effect. If a button is present, it's entirely reasonable to assume that it does what it says it will do, even if it's effect is difficult to casually quantify.
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Regardless of whether they are real or not, all these buttons do make me feel good about my life. I feel in control when I can shut the elevator door 2 secs before it would shut anyways.

It is very reassuring.
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My city has the same thing Alison's does. If you don't press the button, even when the light turns green the walk sign doesn't light up. Also, I'd say about half of the signal lights here are timer based. The rest are sensor based, meaning if you don't press the button, you'll be stuck for a while. Now, downtown Dallas is a bit different. As I recall, the crosswalks don't have buttons at all because the lights are timed.

As for the elevator buttons, I'd guess that the "open door" button is a dummy, too. It never seems to work ;)
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I think the better question is "Why the hell are there 'placebo' buttons?"

If it doesn't do anything, why is the button there?
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I always called the "door close" button in the elevator the "zombie invasion button." I taught my little sister this and I have no reason to think she knows what it's really for.

On a more srs note, in some parts of Portland, I've noticed that the walk sign won't appear when traffic stops unless I press the button by the cross walk. I always thought that was kind of unnecessary.
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I push the button when there is a button there because I assume the button is there for a reason, that it controls something, or indicates to the system that I want to cross. When there is no button and still a crosswalk man, I assume that if I wait, I will be allowed to cross. It is not a feeling of control that I want but just to simply cross the street. I prefer the no button style...
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Out here in Japan the "close door" button always works and the instinct of the last person into the elevator is to push it. Then a polite female voice comes on to inform you that the door is closing.

The last time I was in the States, the non-functioning button drove me nuts - how easily our ideas of normalcy can change....
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I work in a shopping center that has just been renovated and the brand new elevators have close-door buttons. They're right next to the open door buttons (to keep the door open for others to get in), so why shouldn't it work?

A more interesting question is why do people repeatedly press the buttons at traffic lights, or press it when they can see somebody else already has? Surely if the button works, pressing it once should set it into motion. It's not like pressing it repeatedly is going to make it work faster.
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Weak post. Most of the buttons I've encountered work. No push / no walking stickman. I know an elevator tech. Most of those buttons will not work. But they all could. It's a user option configuration.

I still want to see a two level elevator with one button labelled "The Other One".
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Here in Australia the lights don't turn green UNLESS you push the button in the previous cycle. Doesn't make much sense? I know.

So you come to a crossing and there's no cars going except the ones that are turning, but the little man is red. You press the button and he stays red. The lights change and the cars pass in front of you. Then when the lights change again (so it's the same situation as when you got to the crossing) the little man turns green.
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Clearly the placebo effect is at work - the owners of the building/city are so convinced of the value of these buttons that they pay to have them installed
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'close' buttons in elevators in Japan do work. it is not uncommon to see someone hit the button as they depart the elevator as a courtesy to those still waiting to reach their floor too.
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Pink noise is sometimes played through speakers in offices in order to mask other distracting noises. The mind automatically tunes it out, yet it drowns out other background noise such as typing clatter or chatter from the water cooler round the corner.

Nothing to do with fooling staff into thinking the AC is on.
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While he correctly notes that the buttons
always work in fire mode (oh, Look! A
comment box where you can type off the
side!), and that's why they're there, in
fact as other posters note, they do often
actually work, though not necessarily
immediately.

A client is an elevator company, and tells
me that it is programmable whether Close
will work in non-Fire mode. But they
don't "pay to put them in as placebos".

My favorite corollary story, though, is
about the elevator company who were asked
to rephase the elevator bank in a very
tall building in New York -- I think this
story comes from Don Norman's Psychology
of Everyday Things (which I refuse to
call by the much less cool title his
publisher forced on him for the paperback).

Users were complaining that the elevators
took too long to show up in the lobby to
take them upstairs.

Their prescription, after doing an analysis
visit? Put big mirrors in the lobby, so
people can check their look before heading
upstairs. That way, people will be
*occupied* while waiting, and won't
notice.

Worked like a champ.
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I have to agree with what some people said. People press them because they are suppose to work.

I didn't know they were placebo! Why would they put them there if there was no point? That's annoying.
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They are not placebos where I live. Perhaps in New Yourk people are too stupid to figure such things out but where I live the walk buttons do actually start a sequence that will change the light much more quickly than if you simply wait.
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Crosswalk buttons where I live activate the "walk" signal lights, which won't come on otherwise.

But they won't do anything that causes other traffic lights to go out of sync.
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This post makes an assumption that I think is an incorrect one. One would hope that those who push the button do not know for certain that it does not work.

In my area, nearly all of the buttons work. If nobody pushes the buttons, the traffic lights continue to work, but there is never an opportunity for someone to cross the street. There is always traffic... whether straight-through traffic or turning traffic... passing through the crosswalk.

In fact, I have seen many people who, like fools, do not push the button, then act frustrated when they can't cross forever.

Not truly understanding how the button works (no, it is not an instant button to change the traffic signal that moment) leads some to believe they do nothing. However, there is never a clear understanding.

I cannot walk up to a crosswalk and KNOW whether the button does anything useful, whether it has been deactivated, how that particular button will function. Some will almost appear to begin changing the signal immediately... others take their time.

Without consistency and without an interface to show whether the button is activated or deactivated, the user is only left with pure speculation and assumption. So, if there is a possibility it might be functioning, I'm going to press it. If I know for sure that it absolutely does not work and is not needed, I won't press it. It's that simple.

It isn't about a bunch of troglodytes pushing disabled buttons because they have been programmed to do so. It's about the lack of proper communication. If a button has truly been disabled, it should be removed. If it still exists, it must be because it still works.
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I should add that on many occasions I have used the crosswalk buttons to cause the light to change while driving.

Sometimes the sensors which detect the presence of a car do not work properly. So, in the middle of the night, when there are NO CARS on the road (except for mine), I could sit at a red light forever (quite literally). Sure, I could back up and drive forward and try all sorts of tricks with my car. But, quite often, the most effective method is to just get out of the car and push the appropriate crosswalk button which will immediately start the process which will lead to my light turning green. By the time I am back in my car and buckled up, I've got the green light.
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Oh, how long can trusty Cadet Stimpy hold out?
How can he possibly resist the diabolical urge to push the button that could erase his very existence?
Will his tortured mind give in to it's uncontrollable desires?
Can he withstand the temptation to push the button, that even now, beckons him ever closer?
Will he succumb to the maddening urge to eradicate history, at the mere push of a single button?
The beautiful shiny button.
The jolly candy-like button.
Will he hold out, folks?
Can he hold out?
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I agree with AlisonCJ that not all crosswalk buttons are placebo. I've had two instances, both of them at stoplights based on vehicle detection systems, not purely timed, where the light didn't change for over five minutes, but after getting out of the vehicle and pushing the crosswalk button it changed within 15 seconds.
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this article is retarded. people press placebo buttons because not all the buttons are placebo! if you have some statistics on the amount of usage placebo buttons get vs working buttons, that's worthy of an article. otherwise, this is just another pointless time-wasting article that's trying to mislead people who don't have critical thinking reading skills.
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Another person from Toronto here. We have plenty of pedestrian crossing buttons that not only work but will only provide a walk signal to pedestrians if they are pushed.

As well, most close door buttons in elevators do work here.
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I'm in Texas, and could show you several elevators that have definite working close buttons, lights with working walk buttons- and others that have no effect since at least the early 1980s. But when I was a kid, they stressed the importance of using a control group (in this case what happens if I don't do anything?), multiple trials, elimination of variables... which helps to eliminate false cause and effect perceptions. Go figure.
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I live in Los Angeles and in my area the crosswalk buttons work. If not pressed, the light will change, but an orange hand will stay on the crosswalk sign, instead of the walking person.
But people who stand there and press it constantly! What gives?! Don't they realize it wont change the light faster?!
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The crosswalk button works here in DC. Case in point: A child singlehandedly caused a traffic jam by continuously pressing the crosswalk button during rush hour, interrupting the light cycle.

Also, thermostats in most newer buildings do work - to a point: they are generally restricted to 72 to 76 degrees as the entire building system is computer-controlled.

I can vouch for the close-door button. I spoke to an elevator tech. during routine maintenance. He informed me that the button does work when the system is not in "rush mode".
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Atleast in newyork its true, but in california & vegas it works I remember first time I tried to cross the road waited for 2 minutes or more, and discovered that there is a button to push.
highly populated areas have deactivated those buttons but for other areas they still work.

Thermosats in office, I agree most of them are dummy controllers.
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The 'door open' button in my library elevator did something. If you pressed it while between floors it would stop, and you would be stuck there until someone on a floor pushed the elevator call button.

Also my experience has been than crosswalk buttons must be pressed for the walk sign to come on, except in places like Seattle and NYC.
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It's called operant conditioning. We are taught to press buttons to gt the desired effect. Later on, we don't know if the button works, but we still push it anyway.
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I work at a camp and the thermostat thing is definitely real. When we first transferred one of our buildings to an automatic thermostat, groups complained that they couldn't change the temperature. So we put the old thermostats back up but we just didn't connect them to anything. No complaints since.
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Maybe they're fakes where you live, but around here, the buttons work. My close button does indeed close my elevator doors, and the walk lights change when you press the button (if there is a button there, newer installs don't have the buttons at all).

It's not a dumb idea to press the button to find out if it works. If it doesn't work, then you won't bother pressing it again, will you?
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It's always amused me when I'm alone on a hotel elevator with the Lobby button lit up and someone else gets on before I reach the lobby---they see the L button lit up but they press it anyway. Yep, we should get there quicker now...:)
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I can tell you that here in Denver, most crosswalk buttons do work. (No, they don't immediately change the light, but they trigger a "walk mode" in the signal control computer that alters the next light cycle, typically giving you a walk signal with a slightly longer light to provide time to get across.)

However, downtown most of the lights are constantly in "walk mode" (including the wonderful "Denver shuffle" - http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=denver%20shuffle ), so in this part of town there are no buttons to push.

Some of the newest traffic signals around town in fact have an audible indicator (a sort of "thunk" sound) and a red light that comes on in the middle of the walk button when it's been activated, so if you're approaching an intersection to cross, you don't have to wonder or go pressing the button 15 times just in case.
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I don't know about NYC. But i work for a company that writes the software for traffic control in Australia, and i can tell you for certain that the 'pedestrian detector' buttons most definitely do something.
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The New York City Department of Traffic have already said that it would take over $1 million dollars to take down all the disabled P-T-W buttons, so they just don't replace them during normal construction.

As for people who press P-T-W buttons consistently, I like to equate the number of times a person presses a P-T-W button is directly proportionate to their impatience and therefore their unintelligence. No way does pressing it more than once help. I see youngsters yelling at the street light: Come onnn! Reflection on video gaming?
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