Friday, November 05, 2010

Placebo Buttons

Placebo Buttons

Posted in Oddities by Greg Ross on November 4th, 2010

In most elevators installed since the early 1990s, the “close door” button has no effect. Otis Elevator engineers confirmed the fact to the Wall Street Journal in 2003.

Similarly, many office thermostats are dummies, designed to give workers the illusion of control. “You just get tired of dealing with them and you screw in a cheap thermostat,” said Illinois HVAC specialist Richard Dawson. “Guess what? They quit calling you.”

In 2004 the New York Times reported that more than 2,500 of the 3,250 “walk” buttons in New York intersections do nothing. “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.”

(Thanks, Tad.)

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27 Responses to 'Placebo Buttons'

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  1. Ricardo said, on November 4th, 2010 at 8:45 pm

    I have long theorized most of this. Now it has been confirmed.

  2. Anon said, on November 4th, 2010 at 8:46 pm

    That’s really, really sad. I had heard about the elevator one, but not the others. I know that extrapolating from rather small events to make a comment about society as a whole is rather irresponsible, but I really think that this is a bad sign for society. Do we really have so little control over our lives that we can be placated by such cheap tricks?

    (Oh, and you might want to add “blinken lights”. Those are the amber-colored lights on computers that blink intermittently. They used to actually show hard drive access, which was still pretty useless, but now not so much. They’re mostly there to convince you that something is happening in your computer even when it doesn’t look like it)

  3. JimR said, on November 4th, 2010 at 9:01 pm

    I can attest to the thermostat one. When I worked for a building controls system company, one of our customers was a small medical center full of doctor’s offices. We had a fully automated building temperature control system that was optimized for the climate. The building’s facilities department received continual complaints from the doctors about the temperature in their offices, so they contracted us to provide individual controls that allowed the doctors to vary the temperature up or down by 5 degrees. We sent a tech out to install the wall units and run the wires up to the control units but due to scheduling we had to delay sending out the programmer to actually activate them.

    After about two months we were able to call the facilities department to schedule the programming and they said “Don’t bother – the doctors are all perfectly happy now!” Just the impression that they had control of their environment was enough to end the complaints.

    Go figure!

  4. Mat said, on November 4th, 2010 at 9:14 pm

    See self-efficacy for more information.

  5. cjemmott said, on November 4th, 2010 at 10:10 pm

    The walk buttons on my walk home (Solana Beach, CA) work. In fact, one stopped working, and I was unable to cross the street because the walk sign does not appear even when the lights cycle unless you press the button.

  6. zeptimius said, on November 4th, 2010 at 10:21 pm

    Confirm on the elevator button, as also reported in the New Yorker in a long feature article about elevators. (Yes, the New Yorker really has long feature articles on things like elevators and yes, I really read those types of articles.)

  7. Ethan C. said, on November 4th, 2010 at 10:22 pm

    Same here, in central Missouri. If you don’t press the button, the walk light doesn’t come on. Not that you can’t just cross the street anyway usually, but still…

  8. Kris said, on November 4th, 2010 at 11:09 pm

    I have enough experience walking around downtown Ogden, Utah to know that some, if not all, of the Walk buttons have a real, observable effect. Some of them have even been replaced with touch-sensitive metal discs with a red light in the middle of them. They beep when touched.

    There’s one intersection at which pushing the Walk button will immediately switch the light from “Don’t Walk” to “Walk” under the right circumstances.

  9. PUBLIUS said, on November 4th, 2010 at 11:20 pm

    This is highly reminiscent of the placebo effect.

    It reminds me mostly of cliffbars. They recently put in caffeine without my notice. Every morning, I eat one for breakfast. No awake effect. Then, one day, I notice it had a label that says caffeine added. Since then, they instantly wake me up upon consumption. I am fully convinced they put in caffeine before, but my not knowing it somehow nullified the effect of it.

  10. PUBLIUS said, on November 4th, 2010 at 11:21 pm

    Sorry for double posting, but just after the first post, I noticed the title blatently said Placebo buttons. Silly me! :P

  11. Bielobog said, on November 5th, 2010 at 12:48 am

    When I was a kid my mom explained to me about the walk buttons not doing anything and some trial and error showed she was right. About five years later we moved states and I was constantly complaining about “broken” walk signs until someone explained to me that some of them do change the light. Also it made me look like an idiot. I blame the engineers

  12. Christina said, on November 5th, 2010 at 12:55 am

    The close door elevator buttons work in Japan–it is quite shocking the first time you see someone go for the button and see an actual immediate effect.

  13. Ben Kudria said, on November 5th, 2010 at 1:11 am

    Anon, I think I’ll have to disagree with you about the computer lights – I’ve hooked some up myself, and they definitely work.

  14. bobculo said, on November 5th, 2010 at 1:39 am

    What if you press with peener?

  15. 6=0 said, on November 5th, 2010 at 1:40 am

    Elevator close door buttons needs a key to operate since it’s there for engineers.

  16. Dan M said, on November 5th, 2010 at 1:47 am

    How about the PC keyboard’s mini-cluster of PrintScreen/SysRq, Scroll Lock and Pause/Break? Granted, PrintScreen still has some use. It and MS Paint remain my preferred method of capturing a screenshot, but I have little idea of the point of keeping the other two buttons, beyond backward compatibility. Being a Windows user, a Break key is redundant . . .

    As for crosswalk buttons, here in Calgary they’re getting to be an endangered breed. Busier areas don’t have any, as the crosswalk cycle is built into the intersection timing, and many other intersections have touch sensors that beep and blink (and change the light, if it’s stale). The plunger buttons that were standard here 20 years ago are quite hard to find

    If I lived someplace where some crosswalk buttons are dummies, I’d find myself a Clapper (remember those?) at a thrift store, and a covert camera. Install the Clapper’s plastic shell over the button, set up the camera covertly, then sit back with a lunch and be entertained for a little while ;)

  17. cabal_interrogator said, on November 5th, 2010 at 5:18 am

    Some walk-push buttons do actually work (down in Sydney anyway) but they generate a “walk” phase when cross-traffic is minimal. The effect of the button during normal daytime pedestrian hours is admittedly negligible.

    Cf. http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/713/do-push-to-walk-buttons-at-intersections-ever-actually-work

  18. Anon said, on November 5th, 2010 at 7:36 am

    @ Ben Kudria: Oh, they show that something is happening, but the original blinkenlights were rather specific instead of the “something is happening” variety. If the Jargon File is to believed, they were actually used for diagnostics, but computers today go so fast that anything you could potentially diagnose with them would result in a near-constant blur. Today, they’re essentially a highly complicated “this is on” light.

    @ People talking about walk lights actually working: Note that the New York Times article doesn’t say that all of the walk buttons don’t do anything, only that the majority of them don’t.

  19. AnotherAnon said, on November 5th, 2010 at 9:49 am

    At *intersections* – the walk buttons at *intersections* – where the lights cycle continuously anyway.

    Why do you need a close button? Just choose a floor.

    People press such buttons automatically, the Annoying Devil on Balls of Steel (UK)spread some fake poo on a button and still, people pressed it.

  20. Andy said, on November 5th, 2010 at 10:10 am

    Perhaps this is true for recently installed Otis elevators, however since first hearing this ‘fact’ a few years back, I have tested it on many elevators in my travels (USA) and found the ‘fact’ to be generally not true of elevators in current operation. Occasionally I will find an elevator where there is no apparent effect, but it is rare.

  21. Delta said, on November 5th, 2010 at 10:10 am

    Oh, God, reality is crumbling around me.

  22. David said, on November 5th, 2010 at 11:27 am

    I work a Civilian job on an Army base … many of our buildings have non-functioning thermostats, thanks to frequent remodelings down through the years. Its true, they do give an illusion of control, even if we are still uncomfortable.

    Added to that are regulations that forbid us from turning on the heat or air-conditioning until the calendar reaches a certain date. Leave it to the government to think that they can legislate the weather by issuing a memo.

  23. wally said, on November 5th, 2010 at 11:37 am

    On some elevators, pressing the chosen floor button a second time will cause the door to close sooner. Trust me, I’ve timed them.

  24. jason said, on November 5th, 2010 at 12:09 pm

    In my office we have dummy thermostats throughout the halls. They have a slider that goes from “Warmer” to “Cooler”, but even if you turn it all the way up to “Warmer”, the air conditioner blasts away.

  25. casket salesman said, on November 5th, 2010 at 12:16 pm

    and that joke on the office this season now makes that much more sense

  26. Strodtbeck said, on November 5th, 2010 at 4:53 pm

    funny stuff. Gotta give people the illusion of control or mayhem will take over.

  27. Ding said, on November 5th, 2010 at 9:34 pm

    The close elevator button works in Singapore

Another test. Why is this not autoposting to other sites?

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