New York City's Placebo Buttons and The Post Hoc Fallacy


The crosswalk buttons in NYC might be placebo buttons but if you don’t press the button at most Seattle-area intersections, expect to be waiting to cross until someone less dumb than you comes along and presses it.

Intersections that are timed around here just don’t have buttons. And yes, I’ve tested this, I’m not just falling for the post-hoc fallacy.

Edited to add: Elevator “door close” buttons would be a better example to use (and is the first example cited in the podcast). While some (very few) are actually connected, in almost every elevator I’ve ever been in they do absolutely nothing. The elevator door will close when it closes, whether you press the “door close” button or not (almost all the time).


Elevator close door buttons do work, but usually only when the elevator is in fire mode. A fire fighter will press and hold the close button to close the door. If he/she releases it before the door is closed - say, if someone is running down the hall toward the elevator - the door will re-open.

Door open button works in a similar way. The elevator arrives at a floor, in fire mode, and the door remains closed. This allows the fire fighters to sniff the air, feel the door for heat, etc, before opening. They hold the open button to open the door, and if they let it go at any point before the door is fully open (a wall of flames, maybe) the doors will close again.

Those buttons work, but they are not there for the average elevator rider.


Another place you will commonly find placebo controls is in large buildings, where the thermostats frequently are non-functional in common areas. For both fiscal reasons, and for the general comfort of everyone, you don’t want just anybody messing with the temperature. The 'stats are there in the first place because they usually can be activated or reprogrammed if needed, and they often contain the temperature sensors used by the building automation system. Any “placebo” functionality is a side effect of the real reasons the control is there.

Sorry yes, I should have said that they do absolutely nothing for the typical elevator user.

In b4… awwwww.

Oh, the Foxfire books! Haven’t seen them for years. As I recall, the original point of the books/magazine wasn’t to argue that the Appalachian mountain people (or “hillbillies” to use their somewhat derogatory nickname) had the right ideas about living, but rather to just capture their legends and lore in an anthropological sense before they assimilated into modern culture. But they came out in the 1970s when there was a lot of the “Back-to-the-Earth” movement and people began to use the books as how-to guides. It’s interesting that the authors’ grandparents were into the books as it sounds like they were practically the subjects of the books rather than the typical audience of disenchanted city folk wanting to “get back to the land”.

Accounts such as the Foxfire books are not “prescientific and irrational”, they are lore because they have tried by numerous people over time. If you want to ascertain whether or not it works, you can test it yourself. This is scientific method at work.

The unscientific part is when people are overly credulous, and know that something should work before they try it.

I recall having a similar topic here not too long ago. Then I remembered that it was Maggie who posted it. Then I realised we haven’t seen her here for ages. Did I miss something?

So a placebo button is kind of like a Diebold voting machine, then?


Oooh, you!

I had them when I was a kid! My mom was far too conservative and a little too old to be a hippie, but I suspect she regretted it. The only Firefox lore I remember was the gee-haw whimmydiddle. I had a whimmydiddle, and it was pretty righteous. But in the suburbs we didn’t get many real hillbillies.

Neither examples are good

For me in Los Angeles more often than not the elevator close buttons work. They also work in other country countries. In Japan they pretty much always work.

LA and SF are also same as Seattle. If you don’t press the walk button the signal never changes to walk

This is actually something that You Are Not So Smart should explore. Why things that maybe used to be true but aren’t anymore never seem to get cleared up. It was really sad he used this outdated example

Of course, in some places the walk buttons only work some of the time- in the daytime the intersection is on a fixed cycle. At night, you have to push the button.

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