The Illusion of Control

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Do you like pushing buttons?

It’s natural to want to…we like to see what happens when they’re pressed. Buttons on doorbells, vending machines and telephones all serve their purpose, but some others that we encounter on a daily basis are actually artifacts—placebos that promote the mere illusion of control. Press the button as long or as hard as you like…the outcome will remain the same.

Think about the door-close button in an elevator. Pressing it may help you feel better, as if you’re getting where you’re going all the faster, but in reality it won’t hasten your trip. Karen W. Penafiel, executive director of National Elevator Industry, Inc., says the door-close feature faded into obsolescence a few years after the enactment of the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990. They can be operated only by firefighters and maintenance workers who have the proper keys or codes.

How about crosswalk signals? The instructions are simple, “To Cross Street, Push Button, Wait for Walk Signal.” However, The New York Times reported in 2004 that New York City deactivated most of those pedestrian buttons long ago, with the emergence of computer-controlled traffic signals. Over 2,500 of the 3,250 walk buttons in place at the time existed only as mechanical placebos. Today there are only 120 working signals, the city has stated.

So why press these buttons? What’s the point? Though they don’t function, they do serve a purpose for our mental health, says Ellen J. Langer, a psychological professor at Harvard University who has studied the illusion of control. “Perceived control is very important…it diminishes stress and promotes well-being.”

John Kounios, a psychological professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia, likewise believes there is no harm in the “white lie” that these buttons represent. “A perceived lack of control is associated with depression, so perhaps this is mildly therapeutic.”

There’s a certain undeniable sense of satisfaction in the button-pressing process. So go ahead…push it. Push it good.

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