The Placebo Effect

Psychology 101: The Placebo Effect. Things that make us feel better but don’t actually do anything.

Case and Example: Elevator “Close-Door” button:

You can likely stop pounding on the “Close Door” button on that elevator. It’s not there for you. Regardless of every suspense movie you have seen with an elevator.  You have seen the victim or target press that darn button repeatedly closing the doors to save their lives unless a nasty hand slips in at the last minute. AHHhhh! Well, turns out that most of those buttons don’t work unless you are a maintenance person or fireman with the special access key inserted. It’s just one of several different “placebo buttons” placed around our world that gives us the illusion of control. The close-door feature faded into obsolescence a few years after the enactment of the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990. Some older buildings and looser regulation areas may still let them be activated, but don’t count on that button to escape a madman or stalker.

Other notable placebos….cross walk buttons, security cameras, thermostats in offices and hotel rooms (most public thermostats are dummies, not connected to any system at all).

Sense of control

Though these buttons may not function, they do serve a function for our mental health, Ellen J. Langer, a psychology professor at Harvard University who has studied the illusion of control, states: “Perceived control is very important,” she said. “It diminishes stress and promotes well being.”  Isn’t that a little crazy though?  We need perceived control to feel good. It’s the basis of every conspiracy theory.

John Kounios, a psychology professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia, does say there is no harm in the “white lie” that these buttons present. Referring to the door-close button on an elevator, he said, “A perceived lack of control is associated with depression, so perhaps this is mildly therapeutic.”

Isn’t that all sort of madness yet comforting at the same time. It really normalizes that we all need perceived control buttons to feel confident and happy. In some ways it makes you think about all the other “controls” we depend on consciously or unconsciously in our lives to feel “ok”.

What buttons could you use or want in your life? “You are always right” button or “You are loved” button or maybe an “Everything is going to work out just fine” button.

Interested to read more as you are still convinced your buttons actually work? Here are some article links:

Andrea Leppert
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