I’ll keep pushing that button

Waiting impatiently to cross the road the other day, I pushed the pedestrian button a few times.

It made me feel better to know I had some control over the situation, that I could make the lights change faster.

But in reality, during busy periods, many of these buttons do precisely nothing.

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So-called placebo buttons are everywhere, from lifts to train carriages. Designed to give us an illusion of control, they work by not working.

Their purpose is to make us feel we are influencing events, and therefore feel a little less stressed, while automated systems make the real decisions in the background.

Designers know that having a button light up with a reassuring blue glow when you press “close doors” is preferable to just waiting for the machine to respond.

You could say it makes these kinds of interactions a little more human.

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Another example can be found in many large offices. The thermostat on the wall for employees to use is often not connected to anything. According to reports, some 90 per cent are fake.

Companies do not want the cost of constant temperature adjustments, but they also know their workers like to feel in control.

Some even have sound effects to complete the illusion.

The funny thing about it is that placebo buttons actually work in the same way as placebo pills. A recent experiment found that people reported feeling less hot after they had made adjustments to a dummy thermostat.

Of course, if none of these buttons ever did anything we would soon wise up and stop using them at all.

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But the point is that some of them do, and some of them do not.

And some of them - like pedestrian crossing buttons - work only some of the time, such as when roads are quiet, and when stopping the flow of traffic will not cause issues down the road.

And so that is why next time I am rushing and need to cross a busy road I will keep pushing that button, just in case.

By Guy Cookson, Partner at Hotfoot Design