Press me! The button that lies to you
The tube pulls in to a busy station along the London Underground’s Central Line. It is early evening on a Thursday. A gaggle of commuters assembles inside and outside the train, waiting for the doors to open. A moment of impatience grips one man who is nearest to them. He pushes the square, green-rimmed button which says “open”. A second later, the doors satisfyingly part. The crowds mingle, jostling on and off the train, and their journeys continue. Yet whether or not the traveller knew it, his finger had no effect on the mechanism.
Some would call this a “placebo button”– a button which, objectively speaking, provides no control over a system, but which to the user at least is psychologically fulfilling to push. It turns out that there are plentiful examples of buttons which do nothing and indeed other technologies which are purposefully designed to deceive us. But here’s the really surprising thing. Many increasingly argue that we actually benefit from the illusion that we are in control of something – even when, from the observer’s point of view, we’re not.
In 2013, BBC News Magazine discovered that pedestrian crossings all over the UK were the wellspring of placebo buttons. A crossing in central London had programmed intervals for red and green lights, for example. Pushing the button would only impact the length of these intervals between midnight and 7am. ___ several other cities during busy periods, the crossings were programmed to alternate their signals at a specific rate. The buttons did nothing, but a “wait” light would still come on when they were pressed and, yes, people still pressed them presumably believing that their actions were having an effect.
Certain psychologists would argue that the buttons were indeed having an effect – just not ___ the traffic lights themselves. Instead the effect is in the commuter’s minds. To understand this you have to go back to the early 1970s. At that time, psychologist Ellen Langer, now a professor ____ Harvard, was a Yale graduate student. During a five-card draw game of poker she dealt one set of cards in a haphazard order. “Everybody,” she says, “got crazy. The cards somehow belonged to the other person even though you couldn’t see any of them.” Langer decided to find out more about the way people regulated the playing of such games. She went to a casino where, at the slot machines, she found gamblers with elaborate ways of pulling the lever. At another time a “highly rational” fellow student tried to explain to her why tossing a pair of dice could be done in a certain way to affect the numbers which came up. “People believed that all of these behaviours were going to increase the probability of their winning,” she comments.
In 1975, she wrote a paper where she described the significance of these beliefs and coined a term for the effect that they had on people: the “illusion of control”. However, instead of framing this as an irrational delusion, Langer described the effect as a positive thing. “Feeling you have control over your world is a desirable state,” she explains. When it comes to those deceptive traffic light buttons, Langer says there could be a whole host of reasons why the placebo effect might be counted as a good thing. “Doing something is better than doing nothing, so people believe,” she says. “And when you go to press the button your attention is on the activity at hand. If I’m just standing at the corner, I may not even see the light change, or I might only catch the last part of the change, in which case I could put myself in danger.”
Also, if pedestrians wait together at the crossing and a few press the button impatiently, that creates a sense of togetherness with strangers which might otherwise be absent. All of these things may be taken as positive impacts on our mental state, and even socially reinforcing.
It’s something to think about next time you cross the street.
The prepositions that adequately fill in the blanks in lines 16, 21 and 23 are, respectively,
- A In – on – at
- B In – on – on
- C In – at – on
- D At – at – on
- E At – at – at