Standing in the way of control: why placebo buttons can create a better user experience

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Placebo Button

Next time you approach a crossing on a busy road and impatiently reach for the pedestrian button you might want to consider whether it’s really worth giving it a push. Many such buttons do nothing at all.

So called placebo buttons are everywhere, from the close-door buttons in elevators and on trains, to the air conditioning settings in large offices. To add to the confusion, some buttons in some places work all of time, some work only some of the time, and others don’t work at all.

Before you get too upset about it, placebo buttons could be good for you. Chris Baraniuk describes the work of psychologist Ellen Langer, now a professor at Harvard, who identified the benefits of believing you have control over events, even when you do not:

[Ellen Langer] wrote a paper in 1975 that made her very famous. In it she described the significance of these beliefs and coined a term for the effect that they had on people. Langer called it the “illusion of control”.  Langer demonstrated this phenomenon experimentally by asking subjects to play a lottery. Some participants were able to choose their tickets and some of those tickets had symbols on them which were more or less familiar to them. The type of ticket had no effect whatsoever on their chance of winning, but they appeared to believe this was the case. Those who had chosen tickets with recognisable symbols were much less willing to part with them in an exchange than those who hadn’t.

But 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.

Is there evidence this really happens? Well, according to a survey in 2003 by the Air-Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration News, 72 percent of their respondents confessed to installing dummy thermostats:

“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.”

– The Air-Conditioning, Heating & Refrigeration News, Mar. 27, 2003 (via You Are Not So Smart)

Of course, this kind of behavioural design goes far beyond buttons, as Alex Stone noted in the New York Times in 2012:

Some years ago, executives at a Houston airport faced a troubling customer-relations issue. Passengers were lodging an inordinate number of complaints about the long waits at baggage claim. In response, the executives increased the number of baggage handlers working that shift. The plan worked: the average wait fell to eight minutes, well within industry benchmarks. But the complaints persisted.

Puzzled, the airport executives undertook a more careful, on-site analysis. They found that it took passengers a minute to walk from their arrival gates to baggage claim and seven more minutes to get their bags. Roughly 88 percent of their time, in other words, was spent standing around waiting for their bags.

So the airport decided on a new approach: instead of reducing wait times, it moved the arrival gates away from the main terminal and routed bags to the outermost carousel. Passengers now had to walk six times longer to get their bags. Complaints dropped to near zero.

We’ll writing more about this in the coming days, so check back soon.


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