Placebo buttons are a pressing issue.

B.F Skinner demonstrated with operant conditioning using randomised food pellet delivery that is was possible to create ‘superstitions in pigeons‘.  The pigeon will link the delivery of the food pellet with its own behaviour, the flapping of a wing or a complete 360-degree turn, for example.  The superstition that somehow a ’cause and effect’ relationship occurred between behaviour (flapping)  and consequence (food), even when the behaviour was exhibited and the food pellet didn’t arrive the bird would be relentless in its flapping – a superstition is now fully embedded in the pigeons behaviour pattern.  A sense of control over the environment has been established, wrongly.

 But humans wouldn’t fall for such an obvious trick, would they?

Let’s take an example of an everyday occurrence, so insignificant that it hardly registers, until we stop to think about it.  The pedestrian crossing.  The eager pressing of the pedestrian crossing button to alert ‘the system’ that we are there are are wanting to cross the road.  Sometimes the lights seem to change on command where other times we still have to wait.  Press again and maybe again a bit harder this time, it must have not registered correctly.  Maybe go on to spin…the spinny thing… the base of the unit to let it know we mean business. Maybe you have tried the….. 3 Fast Clicks, 2 clicks, holding on the each of the two for at least 5 seconds, 1 fast, 2 held ones again, and then 3 fast clicks….trick.

Is this a friend or foe?

In Edinburgh between 50-60 of 300 junctions have crossings where the green man comes on automatically, while in Manchester 40 per cent of the buttons are placebos and don’t need to be pressed to stop the traffic at busy times.

Why is it so difficult to resist the pressing of the button….even if we are told absolutely not to…?

It’s not just the crossings that are lying to us…….

The benevolent deception’ is a study of how computer interfaces are designed with the same illusion of control.  Office temperature/thermostat controls can be another source of futile button pressing to give the perception of control. When you put your indicators on in the car, the clicking noise is generated electronically to mimic the old relays that use to generate the noise mechanically, another example of a machine producing signals with human comfort in mind.  Other similar examples include the shutter noise on a digital camera or the satisfying ‘clump’ of a car door closing.

Another controversial example is the ‘door close‘ button in  a lift.  Although the door always closes after 4 seconds, always, research has shown that it is perceived that the higher frequency number of times the button is pushed the quicker the door closes.  Results of one study can be seen below.


In the UK crossing timers are set on a 2-minute delay so this is the most you will ever have to wait as the same principle as above applies.

However all is not lost….as luck would have it you can increase your chances of influencing the light sequences where ever you come across them,  all you have to do is press the button below…..




Further reading





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