“Placebo buttons” are everywhere, to make us feel good

Chris Baraniuk, for BBC Future:

It turns out that there are plentiful examples of buttons which do nothing and indeed other technologies which are purposefully designed to deceive us. But here’s the really surprising thing. Many increasingly argue that we actually benefit from the illusion that we are in control of something – even when, from the observer’s point of view, we’re not.

In 2013, BBC News Magazine writer Tom de Castella discovered that pedestrian crossings up and down the UK were hotbeds of placebo buttons. A crossing in central London had programmed intervals for red and green lights, for example. Pushing the button would only impact the length of these intervals between midnight and 7am. In several other cities during busy periods, the crossings were programmed to alternate their signals at a specific rate. The buttons did nothing, but a “wait” light would still come on when they were pressed and, yes, people still pressed them presumably believing that their actions were having an effect.

I first learned about so-called placebo buttons a long time ago, but it really just confirmed what I’d always innately expected. Personally, I refuse to press buttons in public, under the assumption that they’re all placebo buttons… unless I’m with someone, and there’s some icky social expectation that I’ll press the button. But that always feels like a tiny defeat.