Humans are truly remarkable beings, possessing a wide array of physical and intellectual abilities that have set us apart from other species. Yet, for all our strengths, there’s no denying that we’re prone to being quite neurotic in many aspects of our lives.
One such instance of this is the ‘close door’ buttons in elevators. Despite being obsolete since the 1990s, these buttons continue to be installed in elevators to give people the illusion of control. People’s fervent presses on the ‘close door’ button don’t actually make the elevator close faster, as elevators operate on their own schedules. This is just one example of what is commonly referred to as a ‘placebo button,’ a button that gives the illusion of functionality while in reality, it doesn’t do anything.
Harvard psychologist Ellen J. Langer explains why perceived control is so important to humans, “It diminishes stress and promotes well-being.” The reason why the ‘close door’ button in elevators became ineffective can be traced back to the passing of the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990, which required elevators to provide ample time for people with disabilities to enter and exit. As a result, elevators today are programmed to close on their own schedules, and the average person can no longer control when the doors close.
Another example of placebo buttons is the ‘walk’ signals at pedestrian crossings. In New York City, for instance, traffic is constant, and pedestrian crossings are controlled by automatic timers, making pressing the ‘walk’ button pointless. However, this doesn’t stop people from pressing the button anyway, as it provides a sense of action and control, which can be a lifesaver in some cases. As Ellen J. Langer explains, “Doing something is better than doing nothing, so people believe. And when you go to press the button, your attention is on the activity at hand.”
Similarly, office thermostats can also be placebo buttons. Companies have been known to install dummy thermostats that don’t actually work, but create the illusion of control for employees. This can lead to a decrease in service calls and give people the satisfaction of being able to regulate the temperature in their working environment.
It’s worth noting that not all ‘close door’ buttons, ‘walk’ signals, or office thermostats are placebos. The prevalence of these buttons depends on where you live and the specific environment. However, regardless of whether a button is functional or not, people will continue to press them as it provides a sense of control and lessens stress, which is incredibly important to our overall well-being.