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5 Buttons You See Every Day That Actually Do Nothing

Jamming that "close" button won't make the elevator door close any faster.

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Elevator buttonsgerenme

Buttons That Do Nothing

There are a lot of buttons you come across every day. But how many are actually doing something, and how many are put there to simply placate users? Unfortunately, jamming that “close” button won’t make the elevator door close any faster, but it’s still there for a reason. Here are all the buttons you’re pushing that are doing absolutely nothing.

Of course, some buttons just SEEM like they do absolutely nothing when they’re actually useful.

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crosswalk button_placebo buttonscleanfotos/Shutterstock

Crosswalk Buttons

Standing at a busy intersection, you can get impatient waiting for the light to change. So you follow the instructions and press the buttons to make the “walk” signal appear faster. That’s what it’s there for — right?

Well, it turns out that that button probably doesn’t make the “walk” sign appear any faster. Crosswalk buttons were constructed to work like that, but in many cases it’s been decades since they have. Today, the majority of traffic lights are computerized, which makes most crosswalk buttons in many large cities obsolete.

In 2014, a New York Times article revealed that only nine percent of the crosswalk buttons in New York City actually do anything. The city switched to automated traffic signals in the 1960s, with the walk symbols corresponding to the traffic lights. In the 1970s, many other large cities followed suit. Those buttons aren’t the only obsolete technology people thought would last forever.

So if these buttons are useless, why don’t cities get rid of them? Well, in New York City alone, there are thousands of buttons, and getting rid of them would be a time-consuming and costly hassle. Plus, we wouldn’t want to spoil the magic for the button believers.

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elevator button_placebo buttons

Elevator “Close Door” Buttons

You’re running late for work and the elevator door feels like it’s taking hours to close, so you rapidly hit that button with the little arrows pointing toward one another. But the joke’s on you — that won’t speed up the door.

In accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, elevator doors must stay open long enough for someone in a wheelchair, or using a cane, to board. Firefighters and maintenance workers are the only ones who can actually make the doors close faster, by using an override code or a key.

Keep that in mind next time your fingers itching to press that button. Plus, how much time will the door shutting a few seconds earlier really save you, anyway?

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thermostat_placebo buttons

Office Thermostats

The majority of office buildings use one heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system throughout the entire building to regulate the temperature. So what’s with those little boxes on office walls?

They’re known in the industry as “dummy thermostats,” and they are only there to appease workers by giving them a sense of control. The thermostats may not work, but the placebo effect sure does. When workers think they can control the climate around them, they’re far less likely to complain about it.

One HVAC worker told The Air Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration News that installing dummy thermostats “[cut] down the number of service calls by 75 percent.”

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Fast train. London, England. Underground train in London. Seats in subway. AnastassiaVassiljeva/Shutterstock

Open/Close Door Buttons on London Public Transportation

If you’ve ever scrambled to board an American subway train before the doors shut, you might be envious to learn trains on the London Underground have “open/close door” buttons. That is, until you learn that those buttons are virtually useless.

Like crosswalk buttons, these buttons did work at one point, but in many cases it was the train operator controlling them, not the passengers. When the passengers controlled them, it was often a recipe for disaster, because people apparently can’t be trusted. Passengers would rapidly open and close the doors, often resulting in accidents and injuries.

When a young child was hurt by a closing door in the 1990s, the city put the kibosh on the functionality of the buttons. The buttons themselves remain on many trains, though.

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progress bar_placebo buttons

Progress Bars Online

This one comes with an asterisk. While not a “button” per se, progress bars are similar in that they provide the illusion that they work when they often don’t. Even on the simplest downloads, it’s difficult for computers to properly gauge how much time the process will take.

Everything from the strength of your internet connection to the file server activity can make download speed fluctuate. That’s why progress bars tend to shoot straight to 50 percent, or stay at 99 percent for what feels like an hour.

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pushing button_placebo button

So What’s the Point?

Why keep all these buttons and bars around if they don’t do anything? Well, because the placebo effect can be powerful. We’re used to things happening when we press buttons, whether it’s a computer keyboard or a vending machine. So even when a button doesn’t actually work, the illusion that it does can provide a calming effect.

“Perceived control is very important,” Ellen J. Langer, a Harvard psychology professor, told The New York Times. “It diminishes stress and promotes well being.”

We like having control, and buttons — useless or no — can give us just that. Because even if the button doesn’t do anything, that elevator door will close eventually, that “walk” signal will appear, and that’s enough. Even now that you know this, those little buttons will still serve their purpose.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published on Reader's Digest