This last weekend, my wife and I were walking through Country Club Plaza admiring all the dazzling Christmas lights. As we came to a crosswalk, I noticed a woman pressing the crosswalk button as if it were a life or death situation. I whispered to Elaine, “I wonder if she really believes those buttons actually work?” To be honest, I was joking about that, but when we got home I decided to research this and found, to my surprise, those crosswalk buttons really do not work after all. 

According to a recent CNN interview with Ellen Langer, a Harvard psychologist, they are sometimes called “placebo buttons” – buttons that are mechanically sound and can be pushed, but provide no functionality. Like placebo pills, however, these buttons may still serve a purpose. They do have a psychological effect. Taking some action leads people to feel a sense of control over a situation, and that feels good.

The New York Times reported in 2004, the city deactivated most of their pedestrian buttons long ago with the emergence of computer-controlled traffic signals. More than 2,500 of the 3,250 walk buttons that were in place at the time existed as mechanical placebos. Today there are only 120 working signals in the city of New York.

About 500 were removed during major construction projects. But it was estimated that it would cost $1 million to dismantle the nonfunctioning mechanisms, so city officials decided to keep them in place. They were relics of the 1970s, before computers began choreographing traffic signal patterns on major arteries. 

ABC News reported in 2010 that it found only one functioning crosswalk button in a survey of signals in Austin, Texas; Gainsville, Florida; and Syracuse New York. I’m guessing it’s probably like that in Kansas City too.

You may also be surprised to know that pressing the door-close button on an elevator might make you feel better, but it will do nothing to hasten your trip.

Karen Penafiel, executive director of the National Elevator Industry, a trade group, said the close-door feature faded into obsolescence a few years after the enactment of the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990.

The legislation required that elevator doors remain open long enough for anyone who uses crutches, a cane, or wheelchair to get on board safely. “The riding public would not be able to make those doors close any faster,” she said. The buttons can only be operated by firefighters and maintenance workers who have the proper keys or codes.

Depending on where you work, you might find the thermostat in a plastic case under lock and key, but if you’re lucky you might have control over one. Well, at least you thinking you have control.

According to a 2003 news article that was published in The Air Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration News, it asked readers in an informal online survey whether they had ever installed “dummy thermostats” within their offices. Of the 70 business owners that responded, 51 of them said they had. 

I’m sure knowing that pushing these buttons is futile won’t stop us from trying, but at least we now know these buttons are there to make us feel better about ourselves. That’s got to be worth something, right?