News & Politics

Guess What? Most "Buttons" You Push Only Exist to Make You Feel Like You Have Control Over Your Life

From fake door close buttons on elevators to non-functioning thermostats, placebo buttons are everywhere, but the cause-and-effect we think we see is made-up by our brains.

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This story is cross-posted from You Are Not So Smart. 


The Misconception: All buttons placed around you do your bidding.

The Truth: Many public buttons are only there to comfort you. 

You press the doorbell button, you hear the doorbell ring. You press the elevator button, it lights up. You press the button on the vending machine, a soft drink comes rattling down the chute.

Your whole life, you’ve pressed buttons and been rewarded. It’s conditioning at its simplest – just like a rat pressing a lever to get a pellet of food.

The thing about buttons though is there seems to be some invisible magic taking place between the moment you press them down and when you get the expected result. You can never really be sure you caused the soft drink to appear without opening up the vending machine to see how it works.

Maybe there’s a man inside who pulls out the can of soda and puts it in the chute. Maybe there’s a camera watching the machine, and someone in a distant control room tells the machine to dispense your pop. 

You just don’t know, and that’s how conditioning works. As long as you get the result you were looking for after you press the button, it doesn’t matter. You will be more likely to press the button in the future (or less likely to stop).

The problem here is that some buttons in modern life don’t actually do anything at all. The magic between the button press and the result you want is all in your head. You never catch on – because you are not so smart.

For instance, the close buttons don’t close the elevator doors in most elevators built in the United States since the Americans with Disabilities Act. The button is there for workers and emergency personnel to use, and it only works with a key. 

Whether or not you press the buttons, the doors will eventually close. But if you do press the buttons, and later the doors close, a little spurt of happiness will cascade through your brain. Your behavior was just reinforced. You will keep pressing the button in the future.

Non-functioning mechanisms like this are called placebo buttons, and they’re everywhere.

Sound engineers and video editors sometimes press a key on their computer keyboards or click around with the mouse and change absolutely nothing, or make the screen go blank for a few moments. When clients ask for nonsensical changes to a project while hovering over the worker’s shoulder, they can press the placebo button and tell the client they’ve made the requested change. Most people will be satisfied and convince themselves they’ve seen a slight difference. 

Computers and timers now control the lights at most 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 an investigation by ABC news in 2010, only one functioning crosswalk button could be found in Austin, Texas; Gainsville, Fla.; and Syracuse, NY.

The city deactivated most of the pedestrian buttons long ago with the emergence of computer-controlled traffic signals, even as an unwitting public continued to push on, according to city Department of Transportation officials. More than 2,500 of the 3,250 walk buttons that still exist function essentially as mechanical placebos, city figures show. Any benefit from them is only imagined.
- New York Times, 2004

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 surmises 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.

In a survey conducted in 2003 by the Air-Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration News, 72 percent of respondents admitted to installing dummy thermostats.

“We had an employee that always complained of being hot,” recalls Greg Perakes, an HVACR instructor in Tennessee. “Our solution was to install a pneumatic thermostat. We ran the main air line to it inside of an enclosed I-beam. Then we just attached a short piece of tubing to the branch outlet (terminating inside the I-beam without being attached to any valves, etc.).”
The worker “could adjust her own temperature whenever she felt the need,” Perakes says, “thus enabling her to work more and complain less. When she heard the hissing air coming from inside the I-beam, she felt in control. We never heard another word about the situation from her again. Case solved.”
- The Air-Conditioning, Heating & Refrigeration News, Mar. 27, 2003

Placebo buttons are a lot like superstitions, or ancient rituals. You do something in the hopes of an outcome – if you get the outcome, you keep the superstition.

Dancing to bring the rain, sacrificing a goat to get the sun to rise – it turns out these are a lot like pressing the button at the crosswalk over and over again.

Your brain doesn’t like randomness, and so it tries to connect a cause to every effect; when it can’t, you make one up.

Check out a copy of the book "You Are Not So Smart."



David McRaney is a journalist who loves psychology, technology and the internet. He is the author of the book, and blog, You Are Not So Smart.