Placebo Buttons and the Illusion of Control

Cross any intersection in a major American city, and you’ll see pole-mounted crosswalk countdown boxes. The remaining time to get across in one direction is displayed on the same poles that feature “walk” and “don’t walk” signs with their stick figures and orange “stop” hand.

Many such intersections also feature buttons labeled “push button to cross,” allegedly allowing pedestrians to request a ‘walk’ sign. But a majority of those buttons are placebos – they don’t work. The button exists to be pressed, because it makes us feel better to be “doing something.” The timing of the light – set by traffic planners in a municipal office somewhere – is unaffected. 

The Americans with Disabilities Act requires elevator doors to remain open for not less than three seconds. That means that since the 1990s, the majority of “close door” buttons don’t actually do anything. But when you’re in a hurry, or in distress, you might stab the “close door button,” harder, or several times, and feel relief and validation when the door does close.

Our frantic mashing makes absolutely no difference. 

But new crosswalks are installed with “push to cross” that planners know won’t be connected to anything. Elevator makers keep installing the non-functional buttons. Or perhaps, they are functional – they don’t change the world, but we appreciate the comfortable fiction that we’re exerting some control. The button doesn’t change the light. It changes your brain chemistry, your situational experience.

Is feeling like you can make a difference enough? Does it matter that the button’s labeled purpose is a lie?

Voting is a Placebo Button

Mashing the button harder doesn’t matter when the button isn’t connected to the crosswalk timer. Labeling a button as if it did doesn’t give it a real-world impact.

Replace in your mind the crosswalk or elevator button with the options in a polling booth. As a method of creating change, voting is hugely inefficient. The chance of a single vote influencing the outcome of a national election are miniscule.

Andrew Gelman, Nate Silver, and Aaron Edlin did the math on a grant from the National Science Foundation. If you live in New Hampshire, the chance of your individual vote deciding a national election is about one in 10 million, roughly the same as being struck by lightning. If you live in California or New York or Texas, it’s closer to one in a billion. (The smaller your state is, the more likely that a randomly selected voter might flip the state’s representation, but the less likely your state’s electoral votes will be needed to decide an election. ) Your individual button almost certainly doesn’t work to change much of anything.

But most Americans have accepted that we must push our buttons, even if they do not change the light. Unless we live in a handful of “swing states,” where tens of thousands of votes might be decisive, we adhere to the learned helplessness of campaign-season button mashing. It gives us a sense that we’re doing something; we are soothed by the belief we might have some control. 

If the colored light changes in our favor when the election results come in, we feel a little sense of victory. Our side wins, and the white stick figure or red elephant or blue donkey congratulates us. The light is controlled elsewhere. But we feel a sense of control.

In our veneration of voting as a way of creating change, we also forget just how well-controlled elections are, by political parties, their donors, and partisan institutions. Boards of Election, legislators, and Secretaries of State write the rules that keep them in power. Gerrymandering – the practice of allowing elected legislatures to draw voting district boundaries – allows politicians to select their voters, rather than voters selecting them. Ballot access laws keep third party candidates and independents from even appearing on ballots. And in case you fancied a non-traditional campaign, in most states, write-in votes aren’t counted.

Voters may choose between two pre-approved flavors of establishment insiders. White stick figure or orange hand. The lights are controlled elsewhere. Push the placebo button. Have a sticker.

“Perceived control is very important,” Harvard psychologist Ellen J. Langer, who studies this psychological effect, told The New York Times. “It diminishes stress and promotes well-being.” She calls the concept behind placebo buttons “the illusion of control.”

Functional Buttons

Not everyone’s buttons are placebos. Some people do have the power to make the lights change at their command, whether it’s in a municipal traffic office or a $50,000-per-plate congressional fundraiser. If you have sufficient wealth or influence to get someone elected, or back a challenger to unseat him, then elections work for you in a way they don’t for voters. Corporations and individuals donate large sums to political action committees across the political spectrum, and invest heavily in influence over national committees and nominating conventions. Candidates who appear on ballots are pre-selected by a political influence class which, like the rest of us, just wants the government to serve their interests.

If your button works, then Congress answers to you. Princeton researchers Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page conducted a metasurvey of nearly 1,800 policy initiatives from 1981 to 2002, determining that “mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence on policy outcomes. Instead, they found “economic elites (the 90th percentile of income earners), and organized groups representing business interests (lobbyists, unions, and professional organizations) have substantial independent impact on US government policy,” and no other factor seemed to matter. 

Pluralist politics can be understood as a competition between various interest groups, each trying to get their own issues taken seriously by the powerful. We might imagine standing on a corner opposite someone you didn’t like, both punching your “walk” buttons, but that assumes both that your buttons have an impact, and that the direction of Congress could be “opposite” or reversed in some meaningful way. In fact, the major power players vary little between elections, and policy (protectionist, interventionist, government-expansionist) varies little based on party control.

Economic power treats elections as investments, so those powerful interests are prioritized. Even elites who don’t want to lobby or play politics sometimes feel they must, because competitors will. Politicians and their appointees control unbelievable spending and regulatory power, so their election (or replacement) is funded by those who stand to gain – or to lose – millions in government contracts, specialty tax breaks, policy tweaks, agency agendas, and artificially reduced competition. Voting or choosing between pre-selected candidates has negligible power to disrupt such dealings. If someone seriously challenged “the way things are done” he would be targeted with well-funded opposition, immediately. 

Americans have been conditioned to look to the federal government for help with our problems, for solutions to our social and economic troubles. But for all our protesting, retweeting, petitioning, and agitating, our “vote for change” buttons aren’t connected to anything. We have almost no influence over the political process, and yet we keep giving away the power to dictate our daily choices to a machine that never answers to us. 

Increasingly, inspiringly, we’re seeing Americans reclaim power. Fed-up parents have stopped vainly mashing buttons marked “public school reform,” and are creating new solutions. Activists who aren’t wasting time pushing placebo buttons and waiting for national policy change have gone back to planting trees, funding local food banks, and building more housing. Doctors giving up on the “fix it” button for subsidized healthcare are free to start cash and concierge services and low-cost urgent care alternatives. Real progress began after they realized that pushing the “policy change” button wasn’t changing anything.

Voting, like most political speech, is a placebo button. Press it if you want to, if you like the way it feels, but don’t expect it to create genuine change in the world or solve complex problems. That might be how the button’s labeled, but it doesn’t work. If you want conditions to change, change them. Don’t settle for the illusion of control. Exercise some. 

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