Life & Philosophy Science

The placebo buttons that lie to you

Control is an illusion. (gif via

Placebo effects are imaginary. They work because they help establish a mindset of control. When you push a button a crosswalk, the perception is that you have communicated with the traffic light system to accommodate your safety. However, even in New York, placebo buttons are all in the pedestrian’s imagination.

“the majority of crosswalk buttons in the city are completely disconnected from the traffic light system.”

Placebos are the joysticks for the mind, giving you fake confidence and power over your surroundings. It is not that taking fish oils will prevent your brain from dementia — it is that you believe they will. Take this, touch this, and you’ll feel better.

It is the promise of feeling, not the guarantee of effectiveness in the placebo itself. If the placebo works, it must be true. Truth happens to the placebo.

Image via Heidi Nelson

Artists are toying with the concept of the placebo by gamifying them. It’s their way of reminding people that seeking certainty is sometimes all in your head.

“Germany a group of interaction design students have developed another way to keep pedestrians busy while they wait, replacing a pointless placebo with an entertaining activity. When the walk light is red, people waiting across the street from one another can share a short game of Pong, playing on screens attached to corner traffic light posts.”

It is human nature to erase doubt and ensure our safety. Placebos institute a way of thinking of how things should go, thus increasing our chances of success. But as the dummy crosswalk lights reveal, control is all in your head. Placebos are a mindset, an illusory cure for fear.

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