Placebo Buttons ? ? ?

Placebo Buttons


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. In some, 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 many 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.

As Michael Luo for The New York Times article ” For exercise in New York Futility, Push Button” on February 27, 2004 ( a looong time ago) observed:


“For years, at thousands of New York City intersections, well-worn push buttons have offered harried walkers a rare promise of control over their pedestrian lives. The signs mounted above explained their purpose:

To Cross Street

Push Button

Wait for Walk Signal

Dept. of Transportation

Millions of dutiful city residents and tourists have pushed them over the years, thinking it would help speed them in their journeys. Many trusting souls might have believed they actually worked. Others, more cynical, might have suspected they were broken but pushed anyway, out of habit, or in the off chance they might bring a walk sign more quickly.

As it turns out, the cynics were right.

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. ”


The socking numbers Luo  found are as follows:

2 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.”

“I always push,” said Réna, an employee at Long Island College Hospital in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, who was too embarrassed to give her last name after she pushed a button on Atlantic Avenue and was told the truth. “The sign says push, so I push. I think it works.”

Most of the buttons scattered through the city, mainly outside of Manhattan, are relics of the 1970’s, before computers began tightly choreographing traffic signal patterns on major arteries. They were installed at a time when traffic was much lighter, said Michael Primeggia, deputy commissioner of traffic operations for the city’s Transportation Department.

The first “semi-actuated signal,” as they are called by traffic engineers, is believed to have appeared in the city in 1964, a brainstorm of the legendary traffic commissioner, Henry Barnes, the inventor of the “Barnes Dance,” the traffic system that stops all vehicles in the intersection and allows pedestrians to cross in every direction at the same time. Barnes was also instrumental in completing the one-way conversion of major avenues in New York.

Typically, they were positioned at intersections of a major thoroughfare and a minor street. The major road would have a green light until someone pressed the button or a sensor in the roadway detected a car on the minor street. Then, after 90 seconds or so, the light would change.

The goal, Mr. Primeggia said, was to make traffic flow on the major artery more efficient. The buttons made sense when traffic was generally minimal on the minor street. But as traffic grew steadily, their existence became imperiled.

In 1975, about 750,000 cars entered Manhattan daily; this past holiday season, there were more than 1.1 million. The other boroughs have gone through similar growth, Mr. Primeggia said. As even minor streets became congested, the need for the semi-actuated signal largely disappeared, because they were constantly being tripped anyway by cars rolling up to the intersection. Many walk buttons also interfered with the computer-programmed coordination of lights that is now the rule in the city to facilitate traffic flow.

By the late 1980’s, most of the buttons had been deactivated, their steel exteriors masking the lie within. But city officials say they do not remember ever publishing an obituary, and the white and black signs stayed up, many of them looking as new and official as ever.

“I don’t always push, but I do it in the off-chance that I might save two seconds,” said Joanne Downes, 63, a retired nursing professor, after pushing a broken button to cross the West Side Highway from Chelsea Piers on West 23rd Street yesterday morning. “I have guessed that they don’t work, but why are they there?”

There are 750 locations where the buttons actually do work, Mr. Primeggia said. Some of them have been installed more recently, while others are holdovers from two decades ago. The working buttons are only at intersections where the walk signal will never come unless the button is pushed or a car trips the sensor, Mr. Primeggia said. He cited two examples, one at Hicks and Summitt Streets in Brooklyn and the other on Flatbush Avenue just south of the Belt Parkway exit ramp. But other working push buttons are hard to find. A random survey of more than 30 intersections in Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan found one, at Marathon Parkway and 51st Avenue in Little Neck, Queens, that worked.

At $300 or $400 per intersection, it would cost about $1 million to remove the disconnected mechanisms, Mr. Primeggia said. About 500 have been removed during the course of major reconstruction projects. But city officials over the years decided it was not worth the cost for the rest, given other needs like rebuilding roads or installing new traffic signals.

“We think of this from time to time,” Mr. Primeggia said. “But there’s always a better need for the money.”

And in the bigger scheme of things, he said, it doesn’t really matter if people push a working button. “The public is going to get the walk signal regardless,” he said. “I guess that’s the point. There’s no harm in having it at the locations.”

Many veteran New Yorkers have long learned to ignore them. They have never made sense, said Maryam Ceesay, 24, standing at a downtown Brooklyn push-button intersection. If pedestrians could simply push them and always get a walk signal, “cars would never cross,” she said. “Traffic would stop.”

But Ms. Ceesay was at that moment baby-sitting 4-year-old Benjamin Miles. Despite his baby-sitter’s explanations that the buttons “never work,” Benjamin still pushed away at the intersection of Atlantic Avenue and Henry Street. Why?

His explanation may be the best reason for the continued existence of the buttons.

“Because,” he said, “it’s fun.”



As in

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