Humans are incredible creatures, no doubt about it, but for all our intellectual and physical prowess, you have to admit that we’re pretty neurotic.
Case in point: the ‘close door’ buttons in most elevators have been obsolete since the 1990s, but because we crave a sense of agency in our everyday lives, manufacturers keep installing them to make us feel better.
Yep, it doesn’t matter how urgently you mash that ‘close door’ button, an elevator will close according to its own schedule, thank you very much.
And that goes for ‘walk’ buttons on New York streets, London Underground train door buttons, and even some office thermostats – we’re being coddled by the machines around us, because we love to feel in control, even if that control is a total illusion.
“Perceived control is very important,” Harvard psychologist Ellen J. Langer told Christopher Mele at The New York Times. “It diminishes stress and promotes well being.”
The reason behind the neutering of the ‘close door’ button in elevators is actually pretty cool. In the US, when the Americans With Disabilities Act was passed in 1990, it meant that elevators had to ensure that someone with a disability had time to get inside.
So if you’re on crutches, use a cane, or travel in a wheelchair, you don’t have to worry about someone hopping on and closing the elevator before you’ve had a chance to get through the doors.
As Karen W. Penafiel, executive director of the US National Elevator Industry Inc., told Mele, since the average lifespan for an elevator is around 25 years, most elevators in operation in the US will have been built with an ineffective ‘close door’ button.
While there’s one important loophole – if you’re an emergency or maintenance worker, you might have access to keys or codes that can actually render those buttons operational – for the average person in a hurry, your impatient finger jabs do nothing.
“The riding public would not be able to make those doors close any faster,” says Penafiel.
This is just one example of a ‘placebo button’ – a button you’re invited to push, which gives the illusion of functionality. And this doesn’t only make us feel good, researchers have found that in certain situations, it can actually be a safety feature.
Depending on where you live, the ‘walk’ buttons at pedestrian crossings can also be placebo buttons.
In New York City, where traffic is constant, crossings are controlled by automatic timers, so no amount of button jabbing will get you across faster than if you just patiently stood there.
But does anyone just patiently stand there? When we’re busy and trying to get from A to B, or we’re completely oblivious because we’re staring down at our phones 24/7, the urge to push a button at a crossing can actually be a lifesaver.
“Doing something is better than doing nothing, so people believe,” Langer told the BBC last year.
“And when you go to press the button, your attention is on the activity at hand. If I’m just standing at the corner, I may not even see the light change, or I might only catch the last part of the change, in which case I could put myself in danger.”
As The Times found back in 2004, most of the 3,250 walk buttons in New York City were mechanical placebos. Today, a mere 120 working signals remain.
Elsewhere in the world, your agency with the ‘walk’ button depends on the time of day, and the levels of traffic in a particular area.
In parts of Australia, the UK, and Hong Kong, for example, traffic lights are run using a system called the Split Cycle Offset Optimisation Technique, which sets the ‘walk’ button to placebo mode during peak traffic times, and switches it to operational mode when there are less cars about.
That’s not all that surprising – a city can’t be run according to the whims of a few disorganised pedestrians who didn’t leave themselves enough time to get between appointments – but the real sign of human neuroticism has to be the placebo buttons on office thermostats.
As Jared Sandberg reported for The Wall Street Journal back in 2003, Michael Downey, former senior vice president of operations at a commercial real-estate company in New York, was one of the first to catch on to dummy thermostats in the 1960s.
Downey told Sandberg that some companies went so far as to install white-noise generators to mimic the hum of the fan, even though the system was off, just so workers would think that the office was being cooled.
And many thermostats have been programmed to only operate with a narrow range of air temperatures, so you can fiddle with it all you like – if you even have that kind of access – but it’s not going to do a whole lot.
According to an informal survey completed by the US Air Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration News in 2003, 51 of the 70 respondents said they had installed “dummy thermostats” at some point in their lives.
One respondent even claimed that it cut down the number of service calls by over 75 percent.
Of course, not every ‘close door’ button, ‘walk’ signal, or office thermostat is a placebo, and until we have more scientific surveys done, we can’t be sure how prevalent they are, but depending on where you live, you’ll probably be in contact with at least one of these ‘illusions of control’ in your daily life.
Don’t be mad – embrace those little moments where you can just stand back and do nothing. Or go ahead and jab away to your heart’s content – we might as well abuse our machines now before they get too smart to notice.