Take Two Placebos…

Lior strikes again. A couple of days ago he sent me a link to a story on io9 about “placebo buttons”. That story ties together earlier stories from You Are Not So Smart and The New York Times (both linked in the io9 story), and muses briefly on the relationship between placebo buttons and perception of time.

Placebo buttons are ones that appear to do something or used to do something, but don’t actually. The classic examples given in the articles are elevator close buttons (in many elevators they’re either dummies or only work when the elevator is in emergency control) and crosswalk buttons (centrally-controlled traffic lights have made the buttons obsolete, but in many places they’re still in place because it would cost too much to get rid of them).

The key point regarding perception of time is that people are bothered less by waiting if they have something to do; the Times article mentions putting mirrors near elevators to allow people to check their appearance–or that of the other people waiting.

The elevator close button is a beautiful example of both threads, actually. The button doesn’t do anything, but it gives people something to do while they wait for the doors to close. (Mildly obsessive-compulsive me has timed the wait for elevator doors to close: it seems to run about seven seconds. Shockingly enough, there are people who find a seven-second wait intolerable. Distracting them with a button to push is perfect: it’s going to take just about seven seconds to step around the person who entered the elevator behind you, reach for the button, and push it. Presto: not only have you kept the person busy so they don’t notice the wait, but you’ve reinforced their belief that the button actually works!)

I found the concept of placebo buttons absolutely charming, but in thinking about it, I realized there was a related type of button. I’m calling it the “covert operation button”. This is a button that does something, but not what you expect it to do. My canonical example is the crosswalk button. In many places, those buttons that have been rendered obsolete by central timing have been repurposed as covert operation buttons: they still have the same signs that say “push button to cross”, implying that they’ll change the light to allow you to cross, but what they actually do is activate the audible “safe to cross” signal for the blind.

Any others? Well, if I told you about them, they wouldn’t be covert, now would they?

Oh, all right. How about the “Back” button on Android? After years of using “Back” in your web browser to unwind the history of pages you’ve visted, it’s a bit of a shock to discover that Android’s “Back” is unwinding actions instead of screens. “Hey, how did I wind up in this app?” (Yes, Jan, I know that’s an oversimplification. I think that’s my point.)

It’s not just actual buttons. How about when you stick your left arm out and point up? You think you’re telling the guy behind you that you’re going to turn right. That signal doesn’t work like that now. The new meaning is apparently to communicate your desire to be run off the road and/or beaten to a pulp.

You tell your team to decimate the opposition, and are surprised when they kill them all and feed the bodies into a branch chopper. All you expected was that they would kill one tenth of the other team.

And then there’s this button:
Contrary to the expectations of the previous generation, it is, of course, the “Hey, NSA, listen up!” button.


Think I wandered off course here? Think again: you hardly noticed the wait for the punchline, right?

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