Does That Button Really Work, Or Is It a Placebo?

Fake buttons are more common than you might think

Ian Nolan/Image Source/Corbis

There’s little more satisfying than pressing a button and getting what you want. Adjusting the temperature in your office, for example. Pressing “walk” at a crosswalk. Making the elevator doors close so you can get to work on time. There’s only one problem—each of those satisfying buttons could be a placebo that doesn’t do anything at all.

“There are plentiful examples of buttons which do nothing and indeed other technologies which are purposefully designed to deceive us,” Chris Baraniuk reports for the BBC. In fact, the advent of computerized controls put a lot of buttons out of business. Buttons at crosswalks in many places are pretty much useless (New York city deactivated theirs ages ago). Subway doors open and close automatically. And that thermostat button in your office is likely an empty promise, designed to keep you from angrily calling the landlord or HVAC technician.

Before you fall into an existential crisis about the futility of a world full of useless buttons, take solace: Baraniuk says that these placebos could actually be good for you. “Certain pyschologists would argue that the buttons were indeed having an effect—just not on the traffic lights themselves,” he notes. “Instead the effect is in the commuter’s minds.” It’s all part of the “illusion of control," an effect that can reinforce social structures as you wait at the crosswalk with your fellow button-pushers or even, in the case of the thermostat, make you think it’s warmer or cooler.

But all that satisfaction could have a dark side too. Baraniuk writes that the illusion of control can sometimes cause people to do things like ignore risk in favor of high returns, like the banking industry’s actions during the financial crisis or the “maladaptive” behaviors of financial traders who think they can cause stock prices to rise or fall. Puts your repeated pressing of the “door close” button on the elevator in a new light, right?