The momentary joy of pushing buttons

Most products and services, almost everything we buy and use, has but one job—to make us feel better.

The fundamental reason we use technology of all sorts, from stone tools to the latest iPhone, is to improve our mood, our situation.

We can prove this- research documents the real impact of the placebo effect in medicine. But can we extend this to our everyday lives… are we made happier through the placebo effect in our lives?


I give you the “placebo button”.


Yes,  every time you reach a traffic light there’s that button which we press.  Do you believe it has an effect- maybe a few decades ago, but now, not at all. But it makes us feel better, it gives us a sense of control over a busy life. Most people believe these buttons are connected to some master control box that will signal the light to change so we can cross the street. In truth, these buttons often do nothing.

What about elevators.

Have you ever noticed someone pushing the call button on an elevator when it’s already lit?

I must admit I’ve done it myself. Particularly when I’m in a rush, I want to make sure the button has been pressed correctly—as if there were a way to press it incorrectly.

It’s a wholly irrational response, yet in the moment, I can’t help myself. When I push the button, I feel better.


Why? Because discomfort is often alleviated by action—by our doing something that makes us feel in control, even if, in reality, we have no control whatsoever. Placebo effect is real!
Once inside the elevator, you may notice a hurried passenger pressing the close door button repeatedly, in hopes of speeding things along. But the button is another example of what’s known as a “mechanical placebo.” According to a 2008 article in the New Yorker, the close door buttons included in most elevators since the 1990s do not actually work the way passengers think. The buttons are installed for emergency personnel, not for the general public. Firefighters use the buttons to open and close doors between flights, but they can do so only with a key or other special instructions. Yes this button, the one that doesn’t work, appears to be the MOST pushed button.


So why do we keep pushing the darned buttons? Of course, not all the buttons we encounter in our daily life are nonfunctional all the time. But how are we to know the difference? The crosswalk eventually flashes WALK, and the elevator door eventually closes. But rarely do we question whether a causal relationship exists. And research shows that the MORE we push the button, the MORE we PERCEIVE the speed at which the door closes…


Other controls are put in place for explicitly psychological reasons. If you work in an office building, there is a good chance your attempts to regulate the temperature in your office are just as futile as pushing a crosswalk button. With the advent of building-wide control systems, individual office thermostats often do little more than decorate the walls.


Giving workers the ability to regulate their own climates is expensive and often incites temperature wars, in which employees continually adjust the thermostat, wasting energy and inflaming tempers. However, building managers and air-conditioning specialists have found ways to placate workers. Climate control professionals repeatedly tell  industry publications, “We had an employee that always complained of being hot.”  Instead of giving the woman her own air-conditioning setup, we decided to give her something else: the illusion of control. They aircon company provided the worker with a dummy thermostat connected to a small air pump. The pump drew air from the main climate control system through a rubber tube. Though the system did not actually change the temperature of her office, the pump made just enough noise for the employee to hear. “When she heard the hissing air coming … she felt in control. We never heard another word about the situation from her again. Case solved.”

A 2003 web survey appearing in the industry publication Air-Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration News revealed that 72 percent of industry professionals admitted to installing dummy thermostats. Many climate control veterans subscribed to the words of HVAC engineer Joe Olivieri, quoted as saying “Thermal comfort is 90 percent mental and 10 percent physical.”

We feel stress, we push a button, we experience some relief; something occurs after we push the button, and even if there’s no way to know whether it’s a direct response to our actions, we continue to feel relief.

Much of the technology we fiddle with daily—our phones, our games, our apps—we use not only because of what they do, but because of how they make us feel. By giving us a sense of control, products can alter our mood and provide relief—even when it’s all in our heads.  And we increasingly love the little spurt of control we feel.


Facebook are great at giving you a boost by enabling you to influence some control in their site.
So in your business how can you take advantage of this normal human feeling- how can you add a sense of control in what you do. Or take it a bit further- why not see if you can use the data.

I love these machines at Changi airport and elsewhere.

It gives me a change to exert some influence when i’m unhappy- when do you press the button- when theres a problem. Plus its an incentive to assist the cleaners perform a little better, if, and only if here , the company collects that data and uses it to give feedback.  Unlikely though. But at least it makes me feel better.

Wishing you all the best for 2017 and hope you feel a little more in control