NYT on Those “Placebo” Buttons

Christopher Mele writes in the NYT about the dirty little secret: that “close door” button on the elevator doesn’t do anything!

He discusses a number of cases of “placebo” buttons everyone encounters. Elevator controls, cross walk buttons, office thermostats. If these devices ever worked, with todays computerized controls (AKA, “smart” buildings, cities, elevators), your input is no longer needed, nor heeded.

Mele comments that these buttons, with their “white lie”, let people feel a bit of control over their enviroment. He notes that this is psychologically beneficial (at least a tiny bit).

Of course, they probably aren’t there for these (questionable) public mental health beneftis. Many of these buttons exist because it is too much trouble to get rid of them, or because they do actually work for certain privileged users (e.g., rescue crews have key that activates the “close door” buttons).

My own view is that these “placebos” actually have a certain amount of useful function. For one thing, they give you something to do when you are supposed to wait. Even better, they take up time, and make you pause, even for a moment.

In the case of the crosswalk button, it also recruits you into the little play that you must perform in order to safely cross the street.

The script says:

To Cross Street

Push Button

Wait for Walk Signal

OK, the important thing is to wait for the signal, but we’ve written a part for you: You approach the corner, stop, push the button. This signals that you are now waiting. Regardless of whether the computer is paying attention (likely not), you know you are waiting, and possibly other pedestrians may take the cue that you (and therefore they) should now wait.

By the way, some of the buttons where I live also speak out, saying “Wait” each time you push the button. This is an additional reminder of your role, and also is useful to people with poor eyesight or those distracted by their mobile devices.

Placebo? This is much more than a placebo!

The elevator button, too, gives you something to do while you wait, and it is something harmless to do. And again, it offers you a little embellishment for your part in this social play. You can express your impatience, or perhaps simply try to be helpful. “We’re all on board and ready to go now, thank you,” you say when you punch the button.

The office thermostat is a bit different. Many times I have been unable to determine if it was just broken or disabled or controlled by evil invisible bosses. Depending on the hypothesis, adjusting the settings is an act of hope, or an act of defiance and resistance. This isn’t just a placebo, and it is way more than just “a feeling of control”.  This is a cry to the ages, a plea for succor from the wage slaves trapped in the cubicle maze.

Finally, I guess we should note that these harmless “placebos” are sort of charming in our brave new world world that now secretly watches us constantly, figures out what we will do next (in the opinion of the algorithm), and does what the computer thinks we want or should want. In order to serve you better, we never bothered to ask you what you want.

Give me a placebo I can actually see, any day!

  1. Christopher Mele, Pushing That Crosswalk Button May Make You Feel Better, but …, in New York Times. 2016: New York. http://nyti.ms/2dOFqgU


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