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Idle Science

The Placebo Effect Not Just On Drugs 824

Posted by samzenpus
from the your-actions-are-futile dept.
dvdme writes "It seems the placebo effect isn't just valid on drugs. It's also a fact on elevators, offices and traffic lights. An article by Greg Ross says: 'In most elevators installed since the early 1990s, the 'close door' button has no effect. Otis Elevator engineers confirmed the fact to the Wall Street Journal in 2003. Similarly, many office thermostats are dummies, designed to give workers the illusion of control. "You just get tired of dealing with them and you screw in a cheap thermostat," said Illinois HVAC specialist Richard Dawson. "Guess what? They quit calling you." In 2004 the New York Times reported that more than 2,500 of the 3,250 "walk" buttons in New York intersections do nothing. "The city deactivated most of the pedestrian buttons long ago with the emergence of computer-controlled traffic signals, even as an unwitting public continued to push on."'"

*

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The Placebo Effect Not Just On Drugs

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  • by Cornwallis (1188489) on Monday November 08, 2010 @02:03PM (#34163318)

    I keep voting and nothing new happens.

    • by alen (225700) on Monday November 08, 2010 @02:07PM (#34163364)

      what do you expect to happen? i've lived in the US almost 30 years and everyone wants a government check and free health care but they don't want to pay for it.

      after 30 years i like the US, A LOT

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by mark72005 (1233572)
        That's not true. Most people want to live off a government check AND smoke weed all day.
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by blair1q (305137)

        I don't want a government check; and the "free" health care I do want will be paid for out of the taxes I pay gladly that now go to put Blackwater mercenaries ($1k/day) on the ground in diplomatically touchy situations instead of trained, accountable soldiers ($50-200/day) who are fighting for something more than the money and a chance to "empty an HK into a raghead".

        Posting that here on /. made me feel better. But intellectually I know I'm still not going to like what happens in the next Congress.

    • by ChefInnocent (667809) on Monday November 08, 2010 @02:08PM (#34163382)
      Oh for a mod point. I've come to look at the election process as voting for Coke or Pepsi when all I want is a glass of water. Transparent and no artificial additives.
      • by TheLink (130905) on Monday November 08, 2010 @02:28PM (#34163676) Journal
        Vote for a glass of water then.

        If enough people do that, instead of voting for Coke or Pepsi when they really wanted water, they'd get their glass of water eventually.

        Right now seems like >98% vote for Coke/Pepsi.
        • by MaskedSlacker (911878) on Monday November 08, 2010 @02:48PM (#34164006)

          Water isn't even on the ballot. There is, however, Mellow Yellow...yeah, no thanks.

          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by nitehawk214 (222219)

            Water isn't even on the ballot. There is, however, Mellow Yellow...yeah, no thanks.

            Quite right, slick.

        • by RandomFactor (22447) on Monday November 08, 2010 @02:57PM (#34164148)

          Even if you are afraid of the worse of the Coke/Pepsi candidates getting in, and therefore vote for the lesser or greater Hamiltonian parties we have today, you should still vote third party some of the time.

          Specifically, if the race is polling such that the outcome is not in doubt (either for or against your candidate) then your vote becomes meaningless in deciding the outcome. At that point VOTE YOUR CONSCIENCE, (e.g. if you want Libertarian ideals, vote L)

          It is a small thing, but every little scratch we can put in the prison walls of the two party system helps.

          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by T Murphy (1054674)
            If you have the short-sighted strategy of trying to get the best viable candidate into office this term for whatever small change he will do, yes you can waste your vote on third party candidates. If your strategy (like mine) is to break the two-party system in the long run, any vote that isn't third party is a waste of a vote.
      • by toastar (573882) on Monday November 08, 2010 @02:35PM (#34163820)

        Oh for a mod point. I've come to look at the election process as voting for Coke or Pepsi when all I want is a glass of water. Transparent and no artificial additives.

        Screw that, I want a Dr. Pepper. And go ahead and Bomb Iran while getting it for me.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Monday November 08, 2010 @02:19PM (#34163546)

      I keep voting and nothing new happens.

      Funny coincidence... my father calls the "walk" buttons at traffic lights, "politician buttons". I never understood the answer, and thus the joke, as a child... went something like this:

      Dad: "why do you always press the politician button?"
      Me: "why do you always call it a politician button?"
      Dad: "because it does nothing."

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        Funny thing... my dad spent his career designing intersections and the systems which run them...

        Those buttons do function. How they function depends on the local traffic control system. Generally the computer controlling the system notes that someone is waiting to cross and alters the timing of upcoming signal events to allow for pedestrians to safely cross.
        Your dad was right though, nothing happens immediately when you push the button.

        If some municipalities, like New York mentioned in the topi
    • by H0p313ss (811249) on Monday November 08, 2010 @02:30PM (#34163732)

      I keep voting and nothing new happens.

      You joke, but during the Suharto regime in Indonesia (1967 - 1998) they held elections and a large part of the population thought they lived in a democracy as a result. They had a very large, and politically diverse, number of parties and they allowed them all to have rallies etc.

      Come election day, nothing ever changed and the people were more content than they would have been without the illusion of political contention, it was very educational to watch.

  • Intentional? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Carewolf (581105) on Monday November 08, 2010 @02:04PM (#34163332) Homepage

    Is it really intentional?

    I thought the walk-buttons was just there because no-one bothered to remove them, and later because they shared house with the beeper that helped blind people. So a lot of crossing had walk-buttons simply because they had beepers, even if the walk button wasn't connected.

    • Re:Intentional? (Score:4, Informative)

      by mlts (1038732) * on Monday November 08, 2010 @02:06PM (#34163358)

      Sometimes walk buttons do something. I do know some traffic lights around Austin which will have reds all four ways if the buttons are pressed.

      Other lights don't do much, if anything.

    • Re:Intentional? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by WrongSizeGlass (838941) on Monday November 08, 2010 @02:09PM (#34163394)
      If no one ever tells the masses that the elevator or crosswalk buttons don't do anything then of course they're going to keep pressing them. They may not help but the person doesn't know that it doesn't make a difference. At least when you hit something with a hammer you know something happened.
  • by Eudial (590661) on Monday November 08, 2010 @02:05PM (#34163336)

    My computer isn't responding when I click an icon. I click again. Nothing. So I click it really hard 30 times in a row. Now the computer decides to respond. Clearly, the computer can read my frustration, and therefore hurries to open the 32 firefox windows I requested.

  • by 140Mandak262Jamuna (970587) on Monday November 08, 2010 @02:07PM (#34163370) Journal
    The button that you press after you get, "slowdown cowboy" that asks you to wait 1 minute before posting again, does nothing. No matter how many minutes elapse, that button never gets reactivated. Slashdotters have typically installed greasemonkey, flashblock, adblock, noscript and thousand other add ons, they just blame their javascript interceptor is misbehaving and continue on.
  • by codegen (103601) on Monday November 08, 2010 @02:09PM (#34163390) Journal

    Well yes and no. It is true that most of them have no effect in normal operation, but when the elevator is in service mode (i.e. apartment move mode), then doors stay open until you press the close button.

    In my sister's apartment, the close button has a effect. The normal door open time is about 40 seconds, and it will close the instant you press the close button (i.e. after 5 seconds). In the office building that I'm in (mid 60s construction), the close button has no effect unless the elevator is in service mode).

    • by Anonymous Coward on Monday November 08, 2010 @02:23PM (#34163602)

      the close door buttons DO work in our building (FWIW we have Otis) but there's a trick which I've experimentally confirmed: something has to trip the sensor between the inner & outer doors to make it think someone has gotten on or off. I can consistently (100x out of 100 tries) replicate the following behavior: if elevator stops on floor w/nobody waiting I simply waive my hand in the gap, press the close button & the doors immediately close/elevator continues - press the button w/o something having tripped the sensor & it just sits there till its normal timeout period.

      individual results may vary but I've successfully been doing this for 10+ yrs at my current employer...

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by Majik Sheff (930627)

        Here's a way to make your experiment slightly more scientific (and probably educational):

        Repeat your process you just outlined, but instead of pressing the button, pretend to press the button. Just go through the motion without actually pressing it.

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by Eil (82413)

        individual results may vary but I've successfully been doing this for 10+ yrs at my current employer...

        Instead of working, it would seem...

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by stewbacca (1033764)

      when the elevator is in service mode (i.e. apartment move mode), then doors stay open until you press the close button.

      I love it when there is more to the story than a snarky slashdot editor thinks.

      Nice post!

  • by Conspiracy_Of_Doves (236787) on Monday November 08, 2010 @02:09PM (#34163392)

    Why would the effect only be limited to pharmaceuticals?

  • not placebo (Score:5, Insightful)

    by LiquidCoooled (634315) on Monday November 08, 2010 @02:10PM (#34163396) Homepage Journal

    ok, so I arrive in a town at an intersection with a button.
    I am going to press it because how the heck do I know whether its connected or not?

    • by dzfoo (772245) on Monday November 08, 2010 @03:17PM (#34164456)

      You have arrived at an intersection in town. There is a button.


      > Press button

      You press the button and... Nothing happens.


      > Press button

      You press the button again and still nothing happens.


      > Smash button a few more times!

      I do not understand "Smash".


      > Press button

      You press the button and this time something happens.

      You have been eaten by a grue.

      [r]etry / [q]uit?

  • by jomegat (706411) on Monday November 08, 2010 @02:11PM (#34163416)
    I read an article in the Washington Post ~20 years ago about people waiting in lines. A hotel was constantly receiving complaints about the speed of their elevators. They kept tweaking the elevators, but the complaints continued to roll in (despite the quantifiable improvements). Rather than continuing to pursue the problem with technology, they turned to psychology and installed mirrors in the elevator lobby. Seems that if people have something interesting to look at (to them at least), the time passes more quickly and they do not notice that the elevators are slow. After they made this final change, the complaints stopped. I think about this every time I see a mirror in an elevator lobby.
  • by MartijnL (785261) on Monday November 08, 2010 @02:16PM (#34163494)
    I was recently in an office building where the elevators had no buttons at all. In front of the elevator was a keypad where you typed which floor you needed to go to, the system assigned you an elevator and you could only get on and be delivered to your earlier chosen floor.
  • by gosand (234100) on Monday November 08, 2010 @02:17PM (#34163502)

    "Placebo effect" implies a perceived improvement. I think it's obvious by the number of times people push elevator close door or street "walk" buttons, or fiddle with office thermostats, there is no perceived improvement.

  • by ugen (93902) on Monday November 08, 2010 @02:17PM (#34163504)

    "Placebo" refers to situation where a patient does not know that the medication is inactive.

    I am not sure about everyone, but I happen to know that most "close" buttons on elevators and most street crossing buttons to activate a pedestrian traffic lights do not work (the former by design, they are there for fire control mode, the latter mainly because they are broken :) ).
    However, I still continue to use them and the reason is very simple:
    1. They still work occasionally (as was the case just last week in a hotel elevator, where doors would close immediately by using close button, and stay open for extended periods of time without it, tested many times). It's a "nice surprise" when it works - and nothing is lost when it does not work.

    2. They may be required occasionally. I know of a quite a few intersections where pedestrian traffic light won't turn green without the use of a button. It's not worth wasting a few traffic light cycles to find out whether the button is or is not needed. It's easier to just press it - if it works, great, if not - again nothing lost.

    So, to conclude, this situation is nothing like placebo.

    Well, perhaps except for thermostats, but I haven't worked in the office in years - and when I did, never bothered with these things.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by bws111 (1216812)

      I agree. This seems more like behaviorism - if I push this button, I may get a reward.

      As for the thermostats, they are kidding themselves if they think people actually believe they work. People stop calling because at that point the realize it is pointless to continue complaining, because nothing is going to be done about the situation.

    • by sammy baby (14909) on Monday November 08, 2010 @02:38PM (#34163874) Journal

      Agreed.

      Also - I don't know about you, but when I press a "close doors" or a "use crosswalk" button and press it, and nothing happens, I tend to press it again. If there was a placebo effect in play, why would I bother pressing it again? The placebo effect suggests that I would be happy with the outcome, rather than stabbing relentlessly away at a soulless machine, like a rat trying to get a food pellet, muttering and cursing the infernal, non functional button and the soul sucking society it seems to embody, when all I want to do is get downstairs and across the street to a bar so I can drown my sorrows in a few glasses of gin and try to muster the courage to talk to that girl who is always there even though I know she's probably damaged goods and wouldn't give me the time of day besides...

      I'm sorry, what were we talking about again?

  • by RightSaidFred99 (874576) on Monday November 08, 2010 @02:19PM (#34163542)
    They are a good aid in me repeatedly hitting it both before and after someone boards the elevator, and a visual aid to my sighing in exasperation when they make it on the elevator. They convey exactly the message I intended.
  • bullshit (Score:5, Interesting)

    by eyenot (102141) <eyenot@hotmail.com> on Monday November 08, 2010 @02:19PM (#34163550) Homepage

    "most elevators installed since the early 1990's, the close door button has no effect"

    and yet i frequently use the close door button to real effect in nearly every elevator i have been in in the last fifteen years including ones installed since 2000.

    meanwhile, some news claims aren't factual but people believe they are because they are made by news agencies.

  • Door close buttons (Score:3, Informative)

    by DNS-and-BIND (461968) on Monday November 08, 2010 @02:20PM (#34163564) Homepage
    Ah, one of the first positive things that I noticed when I moved overseas was that the "door close" buttons on elevators actually worked. You push them, the door closes. It's that sort of literal-mindedness when a culture apes another culture without knowing why it's doing so. The "how" but not the "why". They didn't know that door close buttons were placebos put in place to lie about giving control. Instead, they connected them up to the control circuits, and when you press the button, by God, the elevator doors close. You can even close the doors directly after they open, ignoring the pleas of people running to get in. Heh, that was another education as well, seeing as I had previously thought that holding elevator doors open for random strangers was something that 'everybody did' - turns out, it's just our culture that does it.
  • Not really true (Score:3, Insightful)

    by demonbug (309515) on Monday November 08, 2010 @02:23PM (#34163592) Journal

    The elevator close button not doing anything is certainly true most places in the U.S. It isn't worth pushing the button. Go somewhere like Hong Kong, though, and when you hit the door close button the doors close right now. If someone is halfway through the door when you hit it, too bad - they get chopped in half. I love it.

    Walk buttons are different. I can see not having them hooked up at busy intersections, especially at intersections where there are always (or nearly always) pedestrians waiting to cross. Where I live, the buttons absolutely work - the walk signal doesn't illuminate and the signal timings are different if you don't push the button. It is all about maximizing the flow of vehicular traffic while protecting pedestrians. Interesting that they leave the buttons there even when they don't do anything, but I seriously doubt there are many (if any) places where walk buttons were installed purely for the placebo effect.

    Also - you call that an article? Worst. Submission. Ever.
    Here is a rule of thumb for article submitters: if you can repeat the entire 'article' in the summary, you chose a bad article. Try at least digging up some of the original sources to link to (like the Wall Street Journal article mentioned).

  • by nebular (76369) on Monday November 08, 2010 @02:23PM (#34163604) Homepage

    I'm primarily a pedestrian, so I've had time to test out the walk button. Most of the time, the walk button only makes the walk sign change, otherwise it just says at the stop hand icon.

    The times it does change things is usually near parks or by little used streets where if it was disconnected you'd be waiting a very long time.

  • by aapold (753705) on Monday November 08, 2010 @02:34PM (#34163812) Homepage Journal
    After reaching the level cap, I'd join pug groups and in the role of "healer". I had gear with special effects that did nothing and created all manner of macros to create these effects while at the same time emoting that I was healing my target.

    After the wipe, when they'd call me on it (I have yet to find an addon that will monkey with other people's trackers) I'd try to explain that I was doing this strictly for research and they were in the placebo group.

    Somehow, this did not seem to appease them.
  • Here in Sweden (Score:4, Informative)

    by mikael_j (106439) on Monday November 08, 2010 @02:35PM (#34163818)

    All these examples seem a bit specific or they assume the people affected are all too dumb to realize someone's trying to fool them...

    'In most elevators installed since the early 1990s, the 'close door' button has no effect. Otis Elevator engineers confirmed the fact to the Wall Street Journal in 2003.

    Around here most elevators don't even seem to have a "close" button, they do have an "open" button though. And if you press one of the "go to floor #n" buttons the doors tend to close immediately. As an example, in the building I live in the best way to get the doors to close quickly is to pass through the elevator door and make sure you're clear of the "don't squish the humans" sensor and then hit a floor button, door closes immediately and elevator gets going.

    Similarly, many office thermostats are dummies, designed to give workers the illusion of control. "You just get tired of dealing with them and you screw in a cheap thermostat," said Illinois HVAC specialist Richard Dawson. "Guess what? They quit calling you."

    Duh. Of course people stop calling you, they're sweating their asses off and you show up and say "nothing wrong here" half a dozen times and then you install a thermostat that doesn't work. Most likely they just end up figuring out how to disable the alarm connected to the windows so they can get some relief that way (seriously, I've seen this problem in several workplaces, the building maintenance guys swear up and down that the ventilation system is fine yet one office which isn't even facing the sun most of the day has stuffy air and a constant temperature above 25 C, in the latest case they finally installed a thermostat that did nothing, we just stopped calling them about the issue (the thermostat was clearly not connected to anything)).

    In 2004 the New York Times reported that more than 2,500 of the 3,250 "walk" buttons in New York intersections do nothing. "The city deactivated most of the pedestrian buttons long ago with the emergence of computer-controlled traffic signals, even as an unwitting public continued to push on."'"

    Here in .se the buttons do work. In fact, if you don't press the button the light never turns green. You still have to wait until the lights for the cars are right though (which kind of sucks, it just switches the light for pedestrians from a default "you're not allowed to cross" to "please wait your turn".

  • Otis elevators. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by nblender (741424) on Monday November 08, 2010 @02:37PM (#34163856)
    When I was a young-hacker, I worked as a bellman.. It was slack work except when tour busses came in and then it was a scramble to get luggage up to the rooms. It meant multiple trips with a full cart and no passengers... What I couldn't handle was the long rides down to the lobby stopping at 10+ floors to pickup additional passengers... I soon discovered that if I held the 'door close' button while the elevator was descending, it would stop at the floors where people had pushed the 'down' button but the door wouldn't open. The elevator would stop. Hesitate for about 1.5 seconds, and then start moving again. The unfortunate drawback was that outside of the car, the 'down' light would go out and the waiting passengers would have to press it again to call for another elevator. I then learned that I didn't have to hold the door-close button. If I felt the car slow down and managed to press the button before the car came to a full stop, I could trigger the override.

    Eventually, I got a copy of a master key (which I still have) that allowed me to just put the elevator in service mode and didn't have to override anything.
  • Damn elevators. (Score:4, Insightful)

    by MaWeiTao (908546) on Monday November 08, 2010 @02:52PM (#34164064)

    I've known for years now that close door buttons in elevators have no effect. I've been in dozens of elevators and have tried the button for the hell of it to no avail. I don't bother anymore. I always assumed there was some kind of associated safety law. What I don't get is why they keep the damn button there; I assume it's cheaper to do so than to remove the button for the US market. I do know for a fact that the button does work overseas. It's why I would try the button when I got back to the States.

    Honestly, I don't know if in this particular case it's a placebo effect so much as Americans being conditioned to believe that anything in a public space is likely busted or not working properly. There seems to be a general state of disrepair in the US that I haven't really encountered in other countries. On the one hand, you've got ham-fisted oafs and outright vandals who are compelled to break everything in sight. And on the other hand, you've got service people who can't be bothered to do their jobs, or management which apparently doesn't take enough pride to pay to get things fixed. But then, if something keeps getting broken, eventually you just give up and leave it be.

  • by ThatsNotPudding (1045640) on Monday November 08, 2010 @02:55PM (#34164118)
    "Ask your Doctor"
  • by FudRucker (866063) on Monday November 08, 2010 @02:56PM (#34164136)
    it is just a placebo that comes with every operating system
  • by yeremein (678037) on Monday November 08, 2010 @03:04PM (#34164260)

    I often get up early to jog or bike. At 6:00 AM, when I'm on a side street coming to an intersection with an arterial, and the light is red for me and green for the arterial, pressing the walk button will _immediately_ change the light for the arterial to yellow.

    At 8:00 AM, however, with rush-hour traffic clogging up the arterial, the walk button appears to do nothing.

  • Wow... (Score:4, Funny)

    by aardwolf64 (160070) on Monday November 08, 2010 @03:27PM (#34164600) Homepage

    So, I went to the link to read TFA, and realized that the TFS isn't a summary at all. It's just a copy/paste of the entire blog post with the line breaks taken out. It's amazing what constitutes "New for Nerds, Stuff that Matters" these days...

  • by ceswiedler (165311) * <chris@swiedler.org> on Monday November 08, 2010 @03:43PM (#34164800)

    I think the "door close" buttons cause the crosswalk lights to change, and the "walk" buttons cause the elevator doors to close.

  • Ha ha! (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Fantastic Lad (198284) on Monday November 08, 2010 @04:20PM (#34165392)

    I'm generally amazed when a button actually DOES work. (I lived in a building where the elevator doors instantly responded. That was great.)

    When buttons do nothing, I just fume at the city or whatever agency I happen to live under the management of.

    But Placebo?

    Far too much is attributed to that effect. I think there must be a sliding scale of environmental awareness where some people are a lot more easily fooled than others. Heck, I know this to be true. I wonder if perhaps those who cry, "Placebo Effect!" are among those who are more easily fooled and thus have a hard time working out what reality is actually doing most of the time. Perhaps this is why science is so important to them? Their instincts are poor and thus they need a reliable system of reality reading, not to fall back on or use in conjunction with, but as their primary guide to existence.

    Hm. Interesting.

    -FL

  • by Machtyn (759119) on Monday November 08, 2010 @04:44PM (#34165798) Homepage Journal
    You're darn tootin' we notice!!!! They HVAC people stopped getting calls because people got tired of adjusting the thermostat that never worked and calling the HVAC people. While we may sometimes push that "Close Door" button on the elevator, those of us who use an elevator long enough have realized the timing hasn't been effected since "the late '90s". Isn't New York in enough debt without having to install extra push buttons on every corner of the city if the buttons aren't going to do anything?

    And psychologists wonder why Americans are so up tight, their blood pressure skyrocketing, etc... because the darn "conveniences" don't flippin' work! And apparently, they don't work on purpose. And then we get felt up and/or violated when we use the convenience of quickly traveling from one place to another.

FORTRAN is a good example of a language which is easier to parse using ad hoc techniques. -- D. Gries [What's good about it? Ed.]

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