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Like a scene from a horror film, you are in a elevator, you push the close button —Hurry! The murderer is coming at you! However, again you push the close button, the door won’t close! Psych! The button is fake. But why is that most of the elevators still have those buttons?

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Sources:
https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/28/us/placebo-buttons-elevators-crosswalks.html?_r=2
http://abcnews.go.com/Business/idea-citys-crosswalk-buttons-work/story?id=24796722
http://radioboston.legacy.wbur.org/2010/05/10/walk-buttons
http://www.citylab.com/navigator/2015/09/ask-citylab-do-walk-buttons-actually-do-anything/400760/
http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20150415-the-buttons-that-do-nothing
https://courses.umass.edu/psyc241/langerrodin.pdf
http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/001872678603901104
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5002400/pdf/fpsyg-07-01272.pdf
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Image Source:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ellen_Langer#/media/File:Ellen_Langer.jpg
You know those “Close Door” buttons in elevators?

The one you hit over and over again... because the door still opens and you are like can we go up please? And you kind of suspect doesn’t actually do anything?

Well, it probably doesn’t. And hasn’t for a while. As part of the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, elevator doors are required to stay open long enough for someone in a wheelchair, or with trouble walking, to get on – and no button is allowed to make that shorter.

Firefighters can override it, but for the rest of us, it’s a fake. Our lives are full of other non-working buttons, too. When cities switched over to using computers to time traffic signals, that meant many crosswalk buttons became shams for at least part of the day.

These buttons might be a little frustrating, but it’s hard not to push them. And the lie isn’t all bad. In a small way, these placebos might even make you feel better.

It comes down to something psychologists call perceived control. Perceived control is how much control you think you have over a situation. Sometimes your estimate is about right, or sometimes it’s more or less than what you actually have.

But in general, studies suggest that thinking you have some control in life is a really big deal for physical and mental health. Nursing home residents, for example, have been found to be happier, more active, and more alert when they are encouraged to make their own choices. Employees are happier, healthier, and less likely to quit when they feel they have some control over their schedules and job duties.

And people with panic disorders are less likely to have an attack when they’re in control. In one experiment, panic disorder patients were hooked up to an air mask that provided oxygen with a bit of extra carbon dioxide. They were told they could lower the amount of CO2 by turning a dial that would light up if it was working.

Half the patients had dials that lit up, half had the dials that did not. In reality, none of the dials did anything, but the group that thought it was functional had fewer symptoms of anxiety. And the amazing thing is in many cases there is no difference in the amount of real control someone has.

None of the panic attack patients could change anything. What matters is the perception of control. Which brings us back to those elevator or crosswalk buttons.

Can we really not tell when we’re not in control? It turns out, people are remarkably good at deluding themselves. The psychologist Ellen Langer uncovered this tendency back in the mid-70s, when she set up a series of gambling experiments.

In one, office workers were either given a lottery ticket, or allowed to select one from a pile. Then they were asked how much they’d sell their ticket for. Even though the ticket they got was totally random, participants who got to pick their tickets for themselves thought that they were worth more, and said they’d sell their tickets for higher prices.

In another study, college students placed bets on whether a playing card pulled from the top of the deck would be higher than their opponent’s. They could wager up to a quarter – it was the ‘70s, after all. When students were matched with a well-dressed, confident opponent – who was in on the experiment – they bet less.

And when matched with a shy, awkward person – who also turned out to be an actor – they bet more. In both cases, everything was determined by chance – there was no way to affect the game – but participants acted as though they could. Langer called this irrationally high sense of agency the illusion of control.

It’s when you think you have more control than you actually do. Exactly why we do this isn’t clear. But our sense of being in control isn’t a strict representation of reality.

It’s a perception, something actively constructed by our brains. And it doesn’t take much for us to link things together. So, when it comes down to it, every time you push that elevator button, even if it feels like an eternity standing there with a bunch of strangers, the door does always close.

It feels like you were in charge. And so, if it makes you feel better... go ahead, and keep pushing that fake button. For a jolt of real power, though, pound the open door button.

That one still works. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow Psych, and especially to our patrons on Patreon! If you’d like to support us, you can go to patreon.com/scishow.

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