Michael Bierut | Essays

Information Design and the Placebo Effect

Despite Enron and Martha Stewart, scandal in the Catholic Church, and the failure to uncover weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, I would describe myself as a trusting sort, one who fundamentally still believes in the institutions that govern our public life. But last week, that trust was shaken to the very core by a report in the New York Times about the buttons that are mounted on poles at over 3,000 street corners in New York City. Despite the fact that they bear official-looking signs that read "To Cross Street/Push Button/Wait for Walk Signal/Dept. of Transportation," it appears that at least 2,500 of them have not worked for the last fifteen years.

Like everyone else, I've trusted those instructions, pressed the buttons and waited dutifully, fearing - and, indeed, this is the literal interpretation of the sign - that the light would not change, ever, unless one pushed the button. Now I learn that I've been the dupe of what Times reporter Michael Luo calls mechanical placebos, where "any benefit from them is only imagined." And, my eyes newly opened, I wonder: can this possibly be an isolated case?

Now that I think about it, I've always wondered about those "Door Close" buttons on elevators. I mean, the door always eventually closes, but it's hard to tell if there's really any causation involved. Like the crosswalk buttons, all of these buttons may function simply as therapy for the over-anxious. And it's significant that even if they seldom work, they still work sometimes. Every behavioral scientist knows that if you reward the rats every time, they take it for granted; if you never reward them, they give up. The most effective approach is to reward them every once in a while. This principal of intermittent reward is well understood by casino owners.

I myself have deployed meaningless information to assuage my own anxiety. We bought our first house from a fairly paranoid owner who had outfitted the (modest) property with an elaborate security system. Its operation was well beyond the ken of my family, and after setting off various alarms at various hours of the early morning, we finally had the whole thing disabled. But we left up all those signs reading "This Home is Protected by the Neverrest Ultra Security System," reasoning that intruders would be as alarmed by the signs as by the (now disarmed) alarms.

In post 9/11 Manhattan, this exchange of meaningless information has become part of daily life. Visit any office building over four stories in height and you're likely to run a gauntlet of inquisitors. The truly diligent ones subject visitors to x-ray examination and require tenant escorts. It's an inconvenient procedure, but at least you can understand its efficacy. More often, you're merely asked to sign a log and, sometimes, present your driver's license. How this is supposed to deter cunning terrorists, who presumably can acquire cheap fake id's as easily as anthrax or dirty bombs, I've never understood.

And of course, to move from the personal to the political, no one is exploring the frontiers of information as placebo like our own Department of Homeland Security. What exactly are we expected to make of Tom Ridge's color-coded terrorism alert levels? When the level is raised, are we supposed to hide under the bed or go about our business? Are they trying to reduce anxiety or increase it? Do they mean anything at all? We don't know, and I'm not sure they really know either. But one way or another, they seem to be trying to press our buttons.

Posted in: Social Good, Technology

Comments [21]

This is the incredible power of signage. The sign--the notice of intent--is often more powerful than the action. Do you guys have photo radar for speeding? On highways here we have the occasional sign that says "This area is monitored by photo radar" or in some cases, just an icon alone (an icon that looks, oddly, like a Hasselblad). And the sign alone is enough to get most drivers to slow down, myself included, despite the fact that I have never received a photo-radar speeding ticket, nor do i know anyone that has, and despite rumours that photo radar has been deemed unenforceable. I think it's extremely likely that the sign is bogus, and yet still I slow down.

What I always wonder is whether governments and other authoritative bodies have actually figured out that their signage is such a powerful tool, and can be used in place of action to save millions. Imagine "This area has been beautified by the department of environmental rejuvenation." (Us: "Yeah, looks pretty good ... what did they do? I think those shrubs are new. Maybe they painted this railing?") or "Notice to tenants: The boiler is fixed! Heating throughout the building will increase by 5 degrees."

And surely the mechanical placebo of all times has to be the "Complaints"/"Suggestions" box?
marian bantjes

My favorite example of this practice is the fake thermostat. These are really prevalent in office environments, particularly where a lot of cubicle-workers share a large common room. Giving people the illusion of control is often enough to make them happy; real thermostats in the hands of warring factions of hot- and cold-natured people can seriously damage equipment, and is a massive waste of energy. Here's some more information on the subject.
Rum Smuggler

As far as security goes, the good and trusting people are easily fooled, but a true crook is persistent and clever (although there are plenty of stupid ones).
These buttons are so mundane that there is no outcry about their lack of function. Its a small enough task and a short enough wait that I'm not surprised they haven't worked for 15 years. You may notice, but be unsure at best, and not be really inclined to find someone to listen to your compaints.
It only makes you mad when you know they don't work. When you thought they did, you could rationalize about needing a safe stopping/closing time.

In Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything author James Gleick writes about the concept of time in relation to human's perception of the mostly imagined reality. Chapter 13 is particularly relevant here, and fascinating as well. In it, Gleick writes about the advent of the "close" button on elevators, and their basic dysfunction - many manufactures installed them as placebos, time passers, and a way to generally instill a sense of urgency in lazy passengers in the post doorman era.

A great book - funny that I found it while climbing in the middle of the Mexican desert, where the lack of a watch and general disregard for any timeframe or sense of urgency outside of getting off the mountain before dark made everything much.... Slower.

Gleick also writes about the Walk buttons. In the same fashion, maybe cities installed them but never hooked them up.

These types of signs are visual placebos, to be sure, but hasn't everyone at some point thought about their actually functionality? I often pressed the button with the same sense of futility as I feel when the automated voice from the bank's call in center tells me my call will be answered in "approximately _x minutes."

Oh, how my life has for ever been changed. I was always suspicous about those little buttons but you just never knew, just like the close elevator button. And maybe, in some weird twist, we just thought it closed a second earlier. I must now rely on one little four-year old's reasoning for pushing the buttons, "because it's fun."

I think it's interesting because I always took the buttons as a sign that pedestrians had rights slightly above the traffic. That those of use who chose to walk could actually bring traffic to a halt so that we might continue on our way. But now the truth is out. Seems like it's just another day of us vs. them.
Rob Bennett

I wonder what kind of tolerance we humans have for delays between cause and effect. Can anyone point me in the direction of studies that explore the perception of agency and it's relation to time? I know Daniel M. Wegner discusses it in _The Illusion of Conscious Will_. Thanks.
Jeremy Landman

I've always thought that the signal buttons were not to change the traffic light, but to light up the "walk" sign or signal when the traffic light did change. If you don't press the button, I've seen intersections where the "walk" sign just stay red or says "don't walk" until it was pressed.

Either way, the "message" was interpreted differently by different people (not what good signage is supposed to do).

Something I forgot to mention in my original post that is certainly relevant: the prospect of electronic voting. Goodbye chads, hello....buttons!

Imagine the possibilities.
Michael Bierut

I've always thought the voting system was less fallible as a "chad" system. It seems harder to fake results when there's something to count, not just 1's and 0's.

But could it be said that the whole voting system could be just a large placebo effect? Not to be a conspiracy theorist, but how do I know my vote counts for anything?

Some wags in Berlin have made a comment on this by plastering life-sized paper images of surveillance cameras around the city. If you look carefully you'll see one in this photo. If you don't look carefully, you'll just have the vague feeling that you're being watched... as usual.

Isn't this really all about perception, something that graphic designers are very good at creating? Designers would then be among the biggest enforcers of this 'placebo theory'. Some of the perceptions designers create are generally harmless, but others can be less so. Being duped by the traffic signals may not be too dissimilar to the public's feelings when the perceptions which designers create are not entirely accurate or true. Though designers are not solely responsible for this, they do share a measure of the responsibility. All placebos serve a purpose and that is to fool. Whether they are valid or not is specific to each particular situation. Never-the-less, there are some interesting parallels between the 'placebo theory' and design in general, which is certainly a worrying thought.
Kevin Finn

It's interesting that the broken crosswalk buttons were not originally designed to act as placebos(presumably). When did the first defunct button become a placebo? When it broke? Or when someone eventually realized it was broken and decided not to fix it?

As in the case of MB's disabled security system, the sign remains while what it refers to doesn't. Through neglect or disregard the sign has come to outlive its purpose, without anyone knowing. How many useless or outdated signs are floating through our visual and mental landscape like so many dead satellites orbiting the Earth? What other effects might these broken signifiers have? It's doubtful that they are all positive . Are they as easily identifiable as a faded and torn billboard from another era or do we continue to use them as we continue to use the broken buttons? How many cues are formatted into our visual language that are products of another time, the way indention is a byproduct of handlettering? Do we continue to live by mottos advertising products that have long been discontinued? Which are more insidious- signs as placebos that deceive us willfully but atleast serve some purpose, or cultural and visual signs which out of laziness were never cleaned up after they fulfilled their functions? I would almost prefer they declare that the buttons were indeed designed as placebos than admit that they had failed to fix the broken equipment.

Although a placebo may not operate in a manner that corresponds to the patient's expectations, the placebo effect refers to an actual change in the patient's condition. Similarly, a security system sign may not refer to an actual armed alarm. Yet, if would-be intruders are deterred by their belief in what the sign signifies, it is inaccurate to argue the sign serves no purpose or is meaningless.

There is a perpetual shift in the relationship between signifiers and signifieds. However, this does not preclude meaningful communication. The accumulation of linguistic relics is not just so much cultural detritus. Rather, it provides language with a richness and resonance that enhances language's ability to communicate sophisticated, multilayered concepts. Designers often draw upon the complex nature of language to create work that challenges, as well as informs or persuades. Are designers who recognize that language, visual or otherwise, can only represent the world (and, never present the world "as-it-is-in-itself') deceptive?
Jeremy Landman

Despite the failure of certain buttons to function, this does not discredit other properly functionable buttons.

The French philosopher describes the development of the modern penal system in his book "Dicipline and Punish". One of his argumetns is that the modern penal system is built around parvasive surveillance - but not necessarily actual surveillance. The mere knowledge that you may be watched affects bahavior. Foucault describes the design of a prison - "the Panopticon" - designed around this principle. A tower in the middle gave guards access (visually) to all cells, but the inmates could not see the tower or whether someone was actually watching. This was very effective - of course Foucault uses is as an example (or more a metaphor) to describe how modern societies use similar techniques to control behavior and ensure docility. Foucault's work is an excellent path into understanding how design and power are inter-related.
Klaus Kaasgaard


For those who didn't read the original article in the Times, the buttons did work at one time in the days before computer-controlled traffic lights. The computer-controlled lights supposedly do a better job, although the details escape me right now.

They also stated that there are some buttons which still work, naming one I passed by a number of times in Brooklyn. In a proof that irony is the one constant in the universe, I never bothered to push the button when crossing that street because I didn't think it would do anything.

-- Ed
Edward Liu

maintenance is not built into our systems.
this lack-of/disintrest-in foresight is responsible for most urban decay issues.
the most unfortunate side effect is that efficiency & being functionally effective is rarely profitable.

It may be of interest that many London Underground trains have 'open' and 'close' buttons on their doors.

Officially, I believe that both don't work. People misused the buttons to close the doors on fellow passengers, apparently. However, they still light up, and a good way to spot tourists is to watch them opening the door at each station.

Occasionally, the driver can make the 'close' buttons work when it's very cold and he's above ground, though I believe this customer-friendliness is frowned upon by the powers that be; and to confuse further, on commuter trains the open/close buttons *always* work - thus creating a good way to spot people who don't normally use the commuter trains!
James Cridland

...or perhaps the effect of the buttons was so ambiguous that no one knew when they were broken, so as more and more broke no one noticed that some were broken and some weren't. Why fix them? Maybe there was just no way to know that they were broken.

While I too always wondered if the "door close" buttons worked when I lived in America, now that I live in Japan I can assure you Japanese "door close" buttons work perfectly. In all Japanese elevators the doors close immediately when you press the "door close" button. Maybe it's a matter of Japanese people being in a hurry or being in such a crowded city (Tokyo) that if the elevators waited as long as their American counterparts there would be traffic jams at the elevators.

In my parents' building, the "close door" button doesn't work, but if you press the button for the floor you are already on, the door shuts instantly. Kind of a close door button for insiders only.
Alex Epstein

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