Why the world is full of buttons that do not work

Have you ever pressed the pedestrian button at a junction and wondered if it really worked? Or broke the "close the door" button on a lift while suspecting that it actually has absolutely no effect?

You are not alone and you may be right. The world is full of buttons that do nothing.

Sometimes they are called "placebo buttons" – buttons that are mechanically sound and can be pushed but do not provide functionality. Like placebo pills, however, these buttons can serve a purpose, according to Ellen Langer, a Harvard psychologist who pioneered a concept known as "control illusion."

"They have a psychological effect," he said in a telephone interview. "Making some action leads people to feel the sense of control for a situation, and that feels good, instead of being just a passive attendee.

"Making something usually feels better than doing nothing."

Do not walk

In New York City, only about 100 of the 1,000 junction buttons really work, a spokesman from the City Transportation Department confirmed in an email. This figure has steadily declined in recent years: When the New York Times revealed that the majority of the New York Buttons did not work in 2004, about 750 were still in operation.

Worse traffic may be behind the turn. The junction signs were generally installed before the traffic jam reached the current levels and, over time, began to interfere with the complex tuning of the lamps.

But while their operation was taken over by more advanced systems – such as automated lights or traffic sensors – natural buttons are often kept instead of being replaced with extra costs.

A pedestrian crossing in London.

A pedestrian crossing in London. Credit: Newscast / UIG / Getty Images

Other cities, such as Boston, Dallas and Seattle, have gone through a similar process, leaving them with their own pedestrian buttons. In London, which has 6,000 traffic signals, pressing the pedestrian button brings a reassuring indication "Wait." But this does not necessarily mean that the "green man" – or the "pedestrian scene" in the traffic signal design terminology – will appear earlier.

"We have some intersections where the green light comes on automatically, but we still ask people to push the button because it allows access to features," said Glynn Barton, network manager at Transport for London, in a telephone interview.

These features, such as tactile coating and audible traffic signals, help visually impaired people cross the road and turn on only when the button is pressed. As for the lights, an increasing number of them is now integrated into an electronic system that detects traffic and adjusts the intervals accordingly (giving priority to buses if they run slowly, for example), which means that pressing the button does not work.

Others, meanwhile, only respond to the button at certain times of the day.

"But in the majority of cases, pressing the key will call the pedestrian stage," said Barton.

Close the door?

And what about the most piercing button of all these: the "closed door" on the lifts? If you live in the US, it almost certainly does not work.

"To put it simply, the cavalry audience will not be able to close the doors more quickly using this button," Kevin Brinkman of the National Lift Industry said in an e-mail.

But there is a good reason for this: the 1990s Disabled Americans Act. "This legislation required that the elevator doors remain open for a period of time for people with disabilities or motor problems such as crutches or wheelchairs, a cabin with security, "said Brinkman.
Buttons located on the lifts.

Buttons located on the lifts. Credit: prapab louilarpprasert / Shutterstock

So if the boarding time has not arrived, pressing the button will not do anything. It is only there for firefighters, emergency personnel and maintenance technicians, who can bypass the delay with a key or a code.

Outside the US, there is a greater chance – though not certain – that the button will work.

"The functionality of the button – whether or not the door closes earlier – is determined by the building code or the customer," said Robin Fiala, Otis, the world's largest lift manufacturer, in an email.

Very hot to handle

Thermostats in the hotel rooms are known to limit the temperature range available to users, thus reducing energy costs. Practice is not limited to hotels, according to Robert Bean of the American Heat Engineering and Air Conditioning Company. But this is not absolutely bad, because the air temperature, which is the control of most thermostats, is just one piece of the thermal puzzle.

"In the absence of control of other measurements, air temperature often makes a bad solution for thermal comfort," he said. In other words: Full control does not necessarily mean more comfort.

Sometimes, however, the thermostats may be misleading from the design. Some models include even a "placebo" option.
Office thermostats may not always work.

Office thermostats may not always work. Credit: Martin Keene / PA Pictures / Getty Images

"The thermal comfort survey shows that when people have perceived temperature control in their premises, some can tolerate higher levels of discomfort," Bean said.

"If a thermostat of a non-operating (virtual) or limited operation thermostat is installed, the only thing that can be manipulated may affect its perception."

Robust thermostats – those that are not wired in the system – can also be found in offices, according to Donald Prather of America's Air Conditioning Contractors.

"(They) were placed there to silence a continuous complainant by giving them control," he said in an e-mail. "As a trainee engineer I was sent to calibrate one. When I asked why they had calibrated a thermostat that was not connected, they panicked and asked if I told the passenger that he had not been connected.

"After reassuring them that I had not poured the beans, they admitted that, not telling me they were disconnected, they thought I would put a more realistic scoring show."

Good button

According to Langer, placebo buttons have a clear positive effect on our lives because they give us the illusion of control – and something we have to do in cases where the alternative will not do anything (which explains why people are pushing the elevator call button when it is already on).

Buttons can give people a "control illusion".

Buttons can give people a "control illusion". Credit: Fox Photos / Hulton / Getty Images

In the case of passageways, they can even make us safer, forcing us to pay attention to our environment. And finally, pressing a button does not require much effort.

"When you think, the answer is so small that, although it has no effect, it has no cost," Langer said. "I think it's a shame if people call it a" placebo button "and, under that name, they think people are going stupid. Hidden to this term is the belief that people are fools to push them – putting buttons where they do not serve the purpose at all.

"They serve at least one psychological purpose," he added, "and sometimes they have an effect."