Placebo buttons and the illusion of control

Some things are not what they seem. You perform an action, you get the desired result. You’re in charge. You have power, you have agency.

So you think.

In some cases, it doesn’t make a blind bit of difference what you do. Take, for example, pressing the the button at a road crossing. We are taught to believe that by pressing this button, the lights will know we’re waiting and they will change accordingly. In fact, most of these buttons do absolutely nothing, and the lights will change whenever they are scheduled to change, particularly at busy periods of the day. This is what is known as a “placebo button“, a button which is entirely useless but is there anyway. They are surprisingly prevalent: on many lifts, the “close door” button does absolutely nothing, as do the entirely decorative buttons for opening and closing doors on the Tube. In some office buildings, they will go so far as to fit fake thermostat knobs.

The purpose of a placebo button is to make the user feel in control of their environment. The illusion of control is a well-studied effect. It is an example of the cognitive short cuts our big old brains take to minimise processing power: we like to think we have an ability to influence outcomes. Often, the illusion of control springs up naturally: for example, when playing craps, many people tend to throw the dice harder if they want a high number and softer if they want a low number, despite the probability remaining exactly the same for any kind of throw. If the outcome is the one desired, people will believe they were responsible for it.

According to Self Regulation Theory, a fairly strong model of how thoughts translate into behaviour, the illusion of control is a reaction to stress or uncertainty about outcome. We cope with it by conjuring up a false sense of control over the circumstances and therefore feels as though we have reasserted control over the situation. Interestingly, people with depression are less susceptible to the illusion, having a more realistic view of the level of control they have over an outcome.

The illusion of control is considered to be a “positive illusion”, though it has some less pleasant real-world effects. In one study of stock market traders, it was found that those with the higher belief in their own control were rated as performing less well and tended to make less money in their investments. Their illusion of control could well have contributed to the financial crisis. With placebo buttons, there is some evidence to suggest that our own perception of time is warped. People who pressed the “door close” button on a lift several times believed the lift came on average two seconds faster than those who only pressed the button once. Merely interacting with the placebo button produced poor judgment.

The function of the illusion of control is fairly well-studied on an individual level, though there does not seem to be any research into the motivation for facilitating people for believing they have control. There are some anecdotes from managers and engineers involved in installing fake thermostat buttons in offices, which serves as semi-decent qualitative evidence:

“We had an employee that always complained of being hot,” recalls Greg Perakes, an HVACR instructor in Tennessee. “Our solution was to install a pneumatic thermostat. We ran the main air line to it inside of an enclosed I-beam. Then we just attached a short piece of tubing to the branch outlet (terminating inside the I-beam without being attached to any valves, etc.).”

The worker “could adjust her own temperature whenever she felt the need,” Perakes says, “thus enabling her to work more and complain less. When she heard the hissing air coming from inside the I-beam, she felt in control. We never heard another word about the situation from her again. Case solved.”

“Even though we were sure our system was working as it should and maintaining space temps to within one degree to two degrees, we could never completely satisfy the occupants of the space,” he wrote. “We mounted a ‘dummy stat’ (short for ‘dummy thermostat’) adjacent to the ‘controlling stat’ and gave the floor manager the key to the stat—now the occupants could ‘control’ their space as they desired with the permission of their manager.”

“The dummy stat did nothing except to give the occupants the impression that they had control of the HVAC system and the psychological effect of having control of their work environment,” continued Langless. “Our service calls disappeared, and to my knowledge, that system is still set up and working as it has since 1987.”

Here, it is clear that the motivation is to make people feel like they are in control without actually changing anything. The placebo button is seen to serve its purpose, stopping unrest and people becoming difficult.

On a grander scale, one can compare many of the methods in which we are encouraged to engage with politics. We are encouraged to vote, and told that it is our way of making our voices heard. In fact, under the current system, in most constituencies, your vote is merely a confirmation or rejection of a pre-determined outcome, with prevalent “safe seats” meaning that your vote is about as meaningful as pressing a button which lights up the word “WAIT”.  Even small changes to this system, such as AV, would make little difference to the level of control you would have.

Writing to an MP is about as effective as pressing the “open door” button on a Tube train. Remember that under the current whip system, they are likely to vote whichever way they are told to vote, and your concerns will only be raised in a debate if it cements what the party was planning on doing all along. Likewise, the government e-petition system has been explicitly linked to “making people feel more engaged“: while you may feel more engaged, all you have done is press a button and registered your opinion.

Ultimately, these encouraged methods mean nothing: they are placebo buttons put in place by structures of power which let us feel we have a sense of control, of agency, of involvement in a corrupt system. It is not true.

This realisation of powerlessness is upsetting, and cynically, I find myself wondering if the lack of illusory control is a contributor to depression.

The difference between political engagement and waiting for the traffic lights to change, though, is an important one. If we look beyond the placebo buttons of representative democracy, we can find a wealth of methods for achieving real change through direct action, towards building a direct model of democracy. While the things we are told give us power are meaningless, with creativity and a rejection of placebo, tangible, real results can be achieved.


This post was inspired by a lovely conversation with Jed and Wail.

16 thoughts on “Placebo buttons and the illusion of control”

  1. Yeah, there’s a button at the bottom of Wellington Street for the cycles-only crossing over to Waterloo bridge. At rush hour, of course the lights follow a strict pattern. Somehow, this didn’t stop me actually getting off my bike, walking back to it, and pushing the button the other day.

    I guess, being a big fan of data, there’s at least a part of me that hopes that even if it doesn’t do anything, it feeds into some massive computer somewhere that is monitoring usage patterns. And isn’t just going into a closed circuit bin.

    And this is why it’s fun to get out of the house for work at like 5:30am – at that time, the under-road pressure sensors are in full control, and I can cycle hard straight at a red light in the certain knowledge that it’ll change to green just in time for me… Until the day it doesn’t :o\

    1. Sadly, I don’t think anyone would use the data, as I suspect it’s not even connected to anything. It’s a shame really, as that would be pretty useful stuff to know.

  2. Go make me a sandwich.

    Mod edit: I left this comment here as an example of the kind of shit feminists receive that gets talked about less frequently. It is not the typical misogynistic abuse, nor is it accusations of conspiracy or humourlessness, nor is it the perpetual WHATABOUTTEHMENZ derailing. It is a a prevalent, tedious guffaw from those who believe themselves to be masters of humour, repeating Topman T-shirt slogans in a miserable bid to be edgy. They sit in the dark, emanating the foetid, hammy stench of the unwashed scrotum, honking with delight at Top Gear as they tug themselves to ecstasy. Their banal guff cakes the internet in a faintly eggy, greasy layer of dire monotony. This is why I usually Stalin the sad fuckers away.

    1. Liked the mod edit – Ryan’s obviously got a sandwich somewhere and his emotional, stomach and intellectual needs are all being satisfied by a lump of industrialised bread, slathered with artificial spread, stuffed with processed protein. Way to go Ryan!

    2. I am still at a loss as to how some people can claim the vast superiority of their gender above all others when they are incapable of even fucking making a sandwich.

      Now Ryan, it’s really not so tough. See, what you do is first of all you lift your knuckles off the ground. Then you take two slices of bread and wrap them around food. It really is that simple, and you don’t even have to get a grown-up to do any cutting for you!

      Now that you have mastered this most fiendish of tasks, you may leave the internet. Go on, toddle off. And don’t let the door hit your stupid arse on the way out.

  3. Obviously known for a while that voting is a futile exercise, but your discussion on the placebo button is very interesting. Makes me wonder about other stuff, like whether this control element of a person’s cognitive functions is linked with OCD, for example.

    1. I think I remember reading a paper which viewed OCD in this framework, and it’s a useful way of looking at things.

  4. I think in some ways, the belief that your vote won’t change anything becomes a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. It disheartens and discourages the minority from voting, which further skews the result in the majority’s favour.

    Interesting posit: If reporting opinion polls and surveys skews the results of an election, what would happen if you banned them?

    (Also, pardon my naivete, but I genuinely don’t get the sandwich comment. Is it just a “get in the kitchen” variant? Am I missing something?)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.