To press, or not to press: placebo buttons and pedestrian crossings

I was talking to a friend last week about pedestrian crossings – yes, I’m that fascinating. I’d noticed recently that an increasing number of people will stand at a pedestrian crossing waiting to cross the road, but won’t actually press the button to make the lights go red and stop the traffic.

Odd, I thought. Why would you wait to cross the road, but not do the one thing which stops the traffic? It seemed strange, particularly to me, a child of the 70s who was taught from a young age to press the button and wait for the green man before crossing any road. What would the Green Cross Code man have said about this behaviour? Would Tufty the road safety squirrel have been appalled? (As a side note, why on Earth would a squirrel have been chosen as an advocate for road safety? The many extremely flat squirrels I saw in country lanes as a kid attest to the fact that small, tree-dwelling mammals aren’t known for their ability to cross busy roads.)

You’re not as in control as you might think

So, squirrels aside, people don’t seem to press the button at pedestrian crossings. How daft, I thought, until I read this article on the BBC News site. Apparently, those buttons don’t always make the lights change to red and the man to green. Sometimes they do nothing at all! Tufty had been spinning us a yarn, and the Green Cross Code man was clearly as much a proponent of the dark side as David Prowse’s other well-known incarnation, Darth Vader. All those years of pressing buttons and half the time it was having no effect whatsoever.

Placebo buttons

Now, perhaps this is a trivial example, but it does underline how sometimes the message that’s communicated to us isn’t quite the whole truth. That button at the pedestrian crossing is there as a placebo. According to the BBC article they are even referred to as ‘placebo buttons’ in the US. The message we’re given is: ‘You want to cross the road? Press this dinky button and *you* will make the traffic stop, much like Moses parting the Red Sea’. The reality should really be: ‘You may want to cross the road, but the traffic comes first. Press this button and at some point we may let you cross… then change the lights just as you’re halfway across.’

Are there other examples of placebo public notices?

I’m trying to think of other public notices, posters, signs etc. that deliver this same placebo function. Can anyone think of some good examples of ‘placebo messaging’? I’d love to know about any other good examples, if anyone’s spotted any.

One thought on “To press, or not to press: placebo buttons and pedestrian crossings

  1. I suppose buttons on vending machines could be regarded as ‘placebo buttons’ in the sense that you think you have decided that you would like hot chocolate with milk when, in fact, what is delivered to you looks more like a cup of overflowing, dirty dish water!

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