Placebo buttons


Well sure, but not the ones I press. Those ones work.


Thanks, now I’ll be spending my afternoon in the elevators at work, pushing buttons and checking delays with a stopwatch.


The close door button on the elevator at my office definitely has an effect as there is literally no delay between pressing the button and the door starting to close. Frequently people get a gentle smack in the side because someone has pushed the button before everyone is in on the assumption there will be a delay (and not necessarily always accidentally).


I’m pretty sure that’s what has become of the “Comment” turned “Continue the discussion” button here on Boing Boing.


The problem with these buttons is when people become used to them not doing anything and then come across one that actually is wired up. You see this a lot with tourists in the UK: pedestrian crossings generally require you to press the button, but you often see groups of people conditioned not to press cross-walk buttons patiently waiting for the lights to change until some local comes along and saves them.


I was certainly surprised last month when the one in a hotel in Ebina (Japan) actually worked. So used to it not working that it’s actually a shock to find one where the door closes as soon as you press the button (this was repeatable).

The phone number for tech-support is made of placebo buttons isn’t it?


Not sure about other cities, but here in Cambridge MA the crosswalk buttons definitely work. If there’s a button and you don’t press it, you won’t be crossing anytime soon - the traffic lights just skip the pedestrian crossing.


Most of the elevator door close buttons I use in Switzerland actually work. I had to re-adjust my thinking from the US where most of them do not work.

I was also under the impression that the close door button worked in the US when the fireman/maintenance key was turned to the ON position, which would indicate why it is not removed from the panel.

I also find both in the US and in CH that the cross walk buttons do work. But often there is a significant delay because the traffic signal has to work the rest of its cycle out before it can activate the walk signal and/or stop the appropriate traffic so they often seem not to work when they actually do if you are just patient.


While I agree with the idea, I am not as comfortable with the ‘science’ and sources in the article. For example they cite old equipment on the walk buttons, but I have seen a lot of shiny new walk buttons installed. Many of these are intersections where there is no walk signal at all unless the button is pushed so I would take issue with their percent functional/nonfunctional. Here’s an old Straight Dope but makes a pretty good case for intermittent working:

I think the modern buttons are probably a mix. There are certain times of day or during a cycle that they don’t do anything and others that they do.

1 Like

Come along, now. Bo isn’t gonna place himself, is he?

1 Like

I only remember a few door close buttons that ever worked. By the 1960s, most of them did nothing discernible. On the other hand, most of the close door buttons were ground down to a nubbin, because people would lean and grind on them while waiting out the statistical you-must-wait-this-long time they built into elevators.

Most of the press to cross buttons that I’ve seen actually work, but they don’t just change the light. They interpolate a walk cycle into the light pattern as they often omit this at complex intersections with few pedestrians. If you don’t press it, you don’t get a walk light.

Where I live, there is a mix of crosswalks that require a button pressed to work at all, and crosswalks where the button is labeled (in small text that I generally notice only after pressing it) “Button for audible signal only” - which produces a loud beep when the crosswalk goes to help blind people cross safely, but mostly it functions to annoy people like me who don’t read the signs before mindlessly pressing buttons.

I have a specific example. Outside Gate 4 of the main Warner Bros Studio lot in Burbank, CA, at the intersection of Olive Avenue and Hollywood Way, the southwest corner. The button to cross Olive and head north on Hollywood Way (the one I would press to get to Taco Bell) was vestigial for years. During the day at least, the traffic light cycle would automatically trigger the pedestrian WALK signal some three or four seconds before the north-south traffic lights would go green, which was highly unusual but necessary so pedestrians could start crossing before all the right-turn maniacs on southbound Hollywood Way could dive through the intersection on their way over the hill.

Anyway, sometime in the last year or so, that button became functional. Surprised the hell out of me. Delayed my Taco Bell fix for an entire traffic cycle.

1 Like

People need to realize what dire consequences these placebo buttons can have:


I’ve started telling the compulsive crosswalk button mash-mash-mashers that each button press adds a little more time to the delay because the controller has to process and log each button-press for legal reasons. It’s funny to watch them start to see cases where it seems to be true.


Hmmm. Now I need to make something up to tell the people who just hold down the button until the light changes.

In high school, the thermostats were enclosed in “tamper-proof” enclosures, so we had to fool the thermostats into giving us heat. Balance an ice pack on top of it, or just wrap with cool wet rags.

Funny because I came to say the same thing about Cambridge (and neighboring Somerville).

To elaborate, the button doesn’t take effect immediately, but does cause a pedestrian phase to be inserted in the next cycle. This is often frustrating, because at some intersections it’s several minutes until that comes along, so by the time it does, everyone’s already jaywalked.