Give In to the Soothing Futility of the ‘Placebo Button’

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So little of life is within your control, the New York Times so helpfully reminds us this week. Consider, the article suggests, the door-close button in an elevator. Elevator passengers have not wielded actual control over the doors since the 1990s: They need to stay open “long enough for anyone who uses crutches, a cane or wheelchair to get on board,” a result of the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act, the paper reports. Pressing the door-close button will not, in fact, cause the doors to close any faster.

Most crosswalk buttons serve no practical purpose, either. In New York City, for example, most traffic signals are computer-controlled, meaning that pedestrians are not prompting the “walk” signal to change when they push the crosswalk button. Across the city, just 120 of these buttons work. The rest could be called “placebo buttons,” along with your office thermostat, probably: More than half of respondents in a 2003 survey admitted to installing “dummy thermostats.” They make office drones feel better, said David Trimble of Fort Collins, Colorado, one of the survey’s participants.“This cut down the number of service calls by over 75 percent,” he said. Pressing a button, even when the button does nothing, gives an illusion of control.

And yet: Just because something is a placebo doesn’t mean that thing is entirely useless. In one recent study, athletes who were told they were getting injections of a fancy new performance-enhancing supplement called OxyRBX ran faster than those who were told they were getting plain old saltwater. (In reality, both groups got the saltwater.) In the case of the placebo button, psychologists interviewed by the Times agreed that the small sense of control people get by hitting a technically useless button is at least “mildly therapeutic,” said Drexel University psychologist John Kounios. Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer echoed, “Perceived control is very important. It diminishes stress and promotes well being.”

There is even evidence, out just this week, that placebos work even if you know you are getting a placebo. So: Hit the elevator door-close button. Hit it several times. The door will eventually close. You didn’t make that happen — but, then again, it kinda feels like you did. Sometimes, that’s enough.