The placebo effect of the ‘Close Doors’ Button

20Feb09

Apparently, the ‘close doors’ button on most lifts does not actually work. It is there mostly to give passengers the illusion of control. We press it but the lift control mechanisms decide when the doors should actually shut according to their pre-programmed cycles.

doorclosebutton

Human brains are finely tuned belief engines. Millions of years of evolution have honed our grey stuff to spot causation in the world and form beliefs about what causes what. It helps us survive when we notice that certain events always follow other events. Such knowledge helps us reliably find food, mates and shelter. But our brains are taking efficient shortcuts. We filter out and ignore failures and remember and reinforce successes. And most of the time this works. But beliefs formed in this way can lead to mistakes. My pressing the lift button may well be a false conclusion drawn from my experience because I have failed to spot hidden causes and alternatives to the obvious. Maybe it really is just the lift closing the door without my intervention.

This all is related to the illusion of control psychological effect studied by Ellen Langer and others, where people are shown to believe they have some control over things they clearly don’t: in most cases, a button does afford us control, and we would rationally expect it to, and if we’re used to it not doing anything, we either no longer bother pressing it, or we still press it every time “on the off-chance that one of these days it’ll work”.

By now you should be wondering why the hell lift makers should install the close door button in their lifts if it doesn’t work appropriately.
There are a few options:

  • The button really does work, it’s just set on time delay.
    Suppose the elevator is set so that the doors close automatically after five seconds. The close-door button can be set to close the doors after two or three seconds. The button may be operating properly when you push it, but because there’s still a delay, you don’t realize it.
  • The button is broken. Since a broken close-door button will not render the elevator inoperable and thus does not necessitate an emergency service call, it may remain unrepaired for weeks.
  • The button has been disconnected, usually because the building owner received too many complaints from passengers who had somebody slam the doors on them.
  • The button was never wired up in the first place.

But thinking about this more generally: how often are deceptive buttons/controls/options – deliberate false affordances – used strategically in interaction design? Are there any examples of products (other than, say, children’s toys) deliberately designed with fake controls to make the user feel in charge even though he/she isn’t?

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29 Responses to “The placebo effect of the ‘Close Doors’ Button”

  1. If I am not mistaken, this topic has been touched on my Don Norman’s The Design of Future Things. If memory serves me correctly, he uses pedestrian crossings as an example. After reading it, I became increasingly suspicious about whether they actually work or not.

    • 2 Vladimir

      Pedestrian x-sings do work. I have intersections with one and if you don’t press the button you will have no green light for pedestrians on the next cycle.

      • 3 Chris

        Some places, like the college where I live, do have functioning pedestrian crossing buttons (if you don’t push them, the light won’t ever turn to “walk”). Others don’t, though, like most of the ones in New York City. They’re holdovers from when the streets were less crowded, and they didn’t have computer controlled traffic lights. They’re cost three or four hundred dollars a piece to remove, so the city doesn’t think it’s worth it.

        Here’s a link, if anyone wants to read more about it:
        http://www.nytimes.com/2004/02/27/nyregion/27BUTT.html?ex=1393218000

  2. Good read =)

    I don’t know if I would dare to say that “the ‘close doors’ button on most lifts does not actually work” – but I do agree with the placebo effect.

    Makes me think of the buttons for pedestrian stoplights. I’ve noticed that here in Rotterdam they work quite well, but in The Hague they don’t seem to work at all – yet everyone keeps using them.

    There must be other good examples of these ‘placebo buttons’ but I can’t think of any now.

    • 5 Vladimir

      For example when you install windows and it stuck somewhere, because of some kind of a bug you are still able to move your mouse around, or even move around a window.

      • That’s not an intentional effect; the buttons should do something, the computer’s just not realizing that they’ve been clicked (or it’s processing the click too slowly for a timely reaction).

  3. Lol, Peter your post appeared right after I submitted mine. Great minds think alike =) I guess we were writing at the same time…

  4. 8 Barry

    I found this other example of the placebo effect. In office building they install dummy thermostats, giving the people inside a fake feeling of control to alter the office weather conditions.

    http://news.thomasnet.com/IMT/archives/2003/04/dummy_thermosta.html

  5. 9 Mike

    Just passing by.Btw, you website have great content!

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  6. 10 Danuka

    congrats to be a growing blog of wordpress
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  7. 11 roco

    What a nonsense. All the close door button that I usually use work properly. As soon as I push the button the door closes. If I dont push the button I have to wait 5 or 6 seconds.

  8. interesting! great blog!

  9. 13 Dr. Who

    The elevators I know need the button to be press during 1 second, not just touch it once. The studio is valid but don’t say that the button is a placebo because maybe it is just a bad user interface.

  10. Hi, I think the explanation is more simple. This button is only enabled in some sites where is useful. Try to push the close doors button in an hospital, it always works fine.

  11. 15 Victor

    thanks for the info! any chance you publish something about elevator hacks? if you know what I mean

  12. Hi Barry,

    Would it be OK with you if I translated your article into Dutch and put it on my weblog (with the necessary credits of course)?

    - Sereniteit -

  13. 18 Phil E. Drifter

    Bad idea to make such sweeping generalizations. I’m sure there are, as I have used them myself, plenty of elevators whose ‘close doors’ buttons work fine. The door opens, you step in, the elevators are programmed to close the doors again after whatever time delay, 5 seconds or whatever, and if you press the button as soon as you step into the elevator, it starts to close the door.

    Same thing with ‘push to cross’ buttons, some may be leftover from the 50s, 60s, etc that don’t function, but then again, some do.

  14. 19 Anonymous

    this reminds me of when your in an arcade, and all the little kids are “playing” the game, but its really just the preview and every so often the character will move the direction they are pushing (by coincidence) and thus fortifying the kids belief that they are actually controlling it.

  15. 20 Dom

    This article is all wrong.

    The close door button may not work during the programmed cycle, however the button still has to be in the lift because when the elevator is in a manual operation mode, that button is used to close the door and move the lift to the next floor pressed.

  16. 21 Rob

    Bad analogy with the elevator. It’s a known classic hack that if you press the close door button and the floor you want to go to at the same time, the elevator won’t stop for anyone on intermediate floors. Even if you were right that it doesn’t close the door (which is wrong), it still has that function.

  17. 22 Neubie

    Usually one needs to HOLD the button and not simply PRESS it for the desired effect.

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