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5 Buttons You See Every Day That Actually Do Nothing

Updated: Dec. 02, 2022

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

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Elevator buttons

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 quite useful. Here’s a list of what all those function keys on your computer actually do.

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crosswalk button_placebo buttons

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, at least in many large cities, obsolete. In 2014, a New York Times article revealed that only 9 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.

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 finger’s itching to press that button. Plus, how much time will the door shutting a few seconds earlier really save you, anyway? Learn the rules of elevator etiquette that you should be following.

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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. Those little boxes on office walls, then, don’t actually do anything to alter the temperature. 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 affect sure does, and 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 “[cuts] down the number of service calls by 75 percent.” Learn about some places you had no idea have hidden cameras.

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Fast train. London, England. Underground train in London. Seats in subway.

Open/close door buttons on London public transportation

If you’ve ever scrambled to get inside a subway train before the doors shut, you might be envious upon learning that trains on the London Underground have “open/close door” buttons. That is, until you learn that those buttons are actually 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 were able to control 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 is an honorable mention; 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 have the tendency to shoot straight to 50 percent, or stay at 99 percent for what feels like an hour. Watch out for these online scams that can steal your money if you’re not careful.

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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, it’s because the placebo effect can be very 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 work 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.