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The pros and cons of placebo buttons (economist.com)
106 points by atlasunshrugged 52 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 140 comments



This makes me so annoyed. I much prefer ones without buttons because I don't have to mess with it; when there is a button, I assume I have to go over and press it, but it sounds like in some cases I don't (for a while now I've suspected them to be pointless). But there's no way to tell the difference so I still have to everywhere.


This whole piece, and to be honest most of the comments here come from such a dark, authoritarian, arrogant perspective.

"lying to the plebs modifies their behavior very slightly in a good way or is it in a bad way?"

It's irrelevant, treat your fellow humans with some modicum of respect and dignity. Terry Pratchett's first rule of morality "don't treat people as if they're objects".

Anyone caught casually deceiving people for some tiny perceived benefit to either themselves or the people deserves a severe lesson in how "irrationally" angry people get when they're lied to.

You can save this page and the comments as an example to future generations of how the elites of this century had become morally bankrupt.


There's a spectrum to "nudges". Some government nudging is actually morally justifiable, IMO. Things like making retirement saving opt-out instead of opt-in, or hiding information about a probable disaster to avoid panic[0]. Placebo buttons I find somewhere between justifiable cost saving (if buttons were working in the past, or could in the future) and being disrespectful to people. But in this case, and in almost all cases, you can avoid lying to people.

Beyond that, I strongly agree with your sentiment, and I frequently point out that if you were to apply standard marketing practice to your friends, you'd quickly get punched in the face - and justifiably so. To me, lying needs heavy justification - on the level of saving lives.

I like this quote: "Promoting less than maximally accurate beliefs is an act of sabotage. Don't do it to anyone unless you'd also slash their tires." [1]

--

[0] - E.g. evacuating a city of million+ will necessarily cause a lot of deaths and heavily disrupt regional economy, leading to further deaths and suffering. Therefore, it's IMO justified for the government to avoid triggering evacuations if the risk is low, even if that means sitting on some information.

[1] - https://web.archive.org/web/20130728200940/http://www.accele..., via https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/XTWkjCJScy2GFAgDt/dark-side-...


> To me, lying needs heavy justification - on the level of saving lives.

Agreed, and in case someone is looking for scientific justification, you can just look at it as specialized market economy (as quite a lot of things can be). Lying in this case reducing market information, which reduces efficiency. In this case, that translated into you wasting a small amount time and effort pushing a fake button. But multiply it across all the times you do it, and all the people that do it, and it's actually a fairly large drain overall (not to mention the frustration of expecting your actions to matter and them never seeming to).

I think the common refrain against this is that people don't act rationally or in the best interest of the whole in these cases, but I think that's more often just another case of poor market information leading to inefficiency, even if the source is different. The problem with manipulating the market by reducing information even more (deceiving people) is that if it works it likely only works while existing conditions persist, and may become much less useful later as conditions change. I.e. if people were crossing before the button was pressed and the placebo button helped, what happens when crosswalk sings start showing countdowns and people then become accustomed to noting that and waiting for them regardless if there's a button or not? Better information has make the system more efficient... except for those that still waste their time with the buttons that don't do anything, and now the prior strategy to manipulate people is making the system less efficient than if it wasn't present.

Which is all just a really drawn out way of saying and showing that treating people with respect and giving them as much information as possible (and definitely not giving them false information) should lead to better outcomes overall.


> Things like making retirement saving opt-out instead of opt-in

This isn't about the retirees as much as it's about society as a whole and the economics thereof.

Simply: Most cultures are now unwilling to put up with old people dying in the streets. We're even iffy on the idea of workhouses and other accoutrements of the Poor Law. Therefore, we have welfare, in multiple forms, and having a lot of people hitting welfare in their Medically Expensive Years is bad for multiple reasons.

> hiding information about a probable disaster to avoid panic

More like avoiding blame when they're culpable.

> E.g. evacuating a city of million+ will necessarily cause a lot of deaths and heavily disrupt regional economy, leading to further deaths and suffering. Therefore, it's IMO justified for the government to avoid triggering evacuations if the risk is low, even if that means sitting on some information.

Failure to prepare on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part... and if it does, I demand to know that you failed to prepare, so you can face some consequences.


It's not really lying if the buttons used to work, now they don't, but they're expensive to remove so the government just leaves them there. It's at worst a lie of omission. The moral question is more like, is it the government's responsibility to spend money removing a nonfunctioning button to save people the negligible amount of time/effort it takes to press it? The answer is probably not considering that there are lots of ways the government could save people time/effort by spending more money but doesn't.


if that's actually the case, how about put a small sign by the button? but is it really that hard to remove or disable the button?

do people really need another data point that interactions with government services are filled with pointless exercises and things that may or may not matter?

and it isn't negligible. what about people in wheel chairs or other handicapped situations? and how many times are people wasting time, energy, and conversation discussing traffic light buttons? it's wasteful and disrespectful.


> if that's actually the case, how about put a small sign by the button? but is it really that hard to remove or disable the button?

These days, I think it would suffice for the local/national (depending on the scope) government to announce that pedestrian lights buttons are no longer working because $reasons. Rebroadcasted by media, it would reach many people, and anyone else would know where to look for answer, if they become interested in the question.

There's no real need to lie. It could be as simple as a tweet.


1. Is is better to, say, spend $2mm to remove nonfunctioning buttons, or instead to reduce wait times at the DMV? I think you could make the argument either way; personally, I don't experience much mental anguish about the existence of buttons that might or might not work -- I would rather save the time/money at the DMV, DEQ, filing state taxes, etc. Note that adding signage still costs money and is also only a temporary solution - signs need to be replaced every few years, depending on the initial implementation.

2. If it's overly difficult for handicapped people to press the buttons then they should never have been implemented in the first place. But considering that they exist, if they are difficult to press and pressing is required to cross, isn't that just altogether worse for disabled people than if they are difficult to press but entirely nonfunctioning/nonrequired?


> It's irrelevant, treat your fellow humans with some modicum of respect and dignity. Terry Pratchett's first rule of morality "don't treat people as if they're objects".

If we want to get philosophical, just the existence of a police force treats people as an antagonist, and interaction between people and the police makes it clear that respect and dignity are out of the question. Nothing is more authoritarian and arrogant than the existence of the police.

But no one will argue in favor of dissolving the police, and the reason is very obvious.

My point is: people are not perfect, never has been, and never will. Acknowledging this is something basically everyone does when childhood ends and adolescence starts.


> If we want to get philosophical, just the existence of a police force treats people as an antagonist

That seems specific to United States, or maybe even to United States' media coverage. Elsewhere, existence of police treats people as vulnerable and in need of protection from occasional dangers that pop up.


If we are being philosophical, plenty of left-wing thinkers have advocated for police abolition.


> plenty of left-wing thinkers have advocated for police abolition.

Impossible. Not bad or wrong or even stupid, but impossible.

If you have no police, everyone's police. How is that abolishing the police?


The commonly suggested alternative to the top-down authoritarian police we know today is horizontally organized citizen militias. In other words, a "police force" not beholden to the interests of the elites and the state, but by and for the common people.


If you're reducing terms to meaninglessness yes, "everyone's police."

The thinkers analyze the role police play in modern society. This refers to modern police forces that have their most direct roots in the late 18th century.


My point is, if there's no specialized police, you have everyone trying to be police, and, well, when every random person tries to do a technical job where peoples' lives are on the line, how do you think it's going to turn out? How do you think evidence is going to be handled?

The thinkers have a political point to make. Well and good. They'd do well to think about chains of custody and interrogation rules and why those things are important to having a society not run by capricious mobs who convict and then hold the trial.


I don't know where this is coming from but this "plenty" you've spoken to is not at all representative of the left-wing thinkers I've spoken to personally. There's no reason to drag politics into this.


It was merely a philosophical digression that clearly went nowhere.

I'm not sure how you could've assumed I meant "all" left-wing thinkers. Only that a significant amount have talked about it.

You're very much welcome to go-to Anarchist or Marxist circles and argue for the modern policing system though.


How is this relevant to this century? The concept of the Noble Lie has been around at least since Plato. Lying to someone isn't treating them as an object, it's actually confirming their subjectivity.


Lying to someone for their benefit is treating them as an object because you're not respecting their right to honesty or dignity, you're just treating them as an object that might or might not get run over and deceptive technology as just another input. You're optimizing them without their consent like they're some code you're trying to speed up. In the same way that PUAs is objectifying women because you're not respecting them as sentient humans with a right to honesty, you're treating your interactions with them as arbitrary code to be optimized.

re this century, maybe this has always been the attitude but I think you see it in "nudge" ideas which came about within the last 20 years. Govt/Corp application of applied behavioural psychology combined with (at least the UK and I think Europe) an acceptance of a nanny state to a degree that would have been unthinkable previously.


Isn't the whole market based on things like this? The way supermarkets are organised, how advertising works at all, the government applying import tarrifs to dissuade you from buying from abroad, etc.

I don't think there's anything wrong with incentivizing the behaviour you want to see. In the end, every modern corporation does the exact same thing as what you claim nanny states do: try to make your desire align with theirs, and making it hard to resist by exploiting superego affinity (e.g your boss presents herself as your friend so you feel bad disobeying or refusing to work overtime).


Yeah and markets are notoriously immoral, so are manipulative bosses. We banned subliminal imaging remember.

There's some blurred territory I totally agree, in between egregious deception and "expected, competitive" deception eg. make-up, presenting yourself well on a date, moderating your opinions, but this example isn't even close. Noone expects buttons to not work and there's no unavoidable competitive marketplace in public infrastructure providers where there's some massive pressure to be immoral or die.


I agree with your sentiment, but I think the extreme of your tone might put some people off.

These buttons have bothered me for a long time because it just illustrates how short sited the thinking is in our government institutions.

This small lie may reduce jaywalking by 3%, in the short term.

But for the future generations growing up in a world where the government makes buttons that don't work, public trust will erode, conspiracy theories will seem more reasonable, and most importantly government employees will have a new standard to weigh their decisions against. If lying was permissible in this case for a slight benefit the maybe a slightly more egregious lie would be acceptable in a different situation.

And on a separate note, once you expect these buttons to be fake people stop pressing them. When you then encounter a "real" button you miss an entire cycle on the crosswalk because you have been trained to ignore the buttons, and this results in people getting absolutely furious.


To add, everyone's boss everywhere pretending the economic value their workers create is approximately in line with what those workers get paid.


> Lying to someone isn't treating them as an object, it's actually confirming their subjectivity

Found the lawyer.


Agreed. As a pedestrian, one of the most irksome circumstances is incorrectly assuming an intersection is automatic and losing a cycle because you chose to optimistically not press the button. So if you're not absolutely certain an intersection is automatic, you generally will press the button.

Frankly, I don't think governments should engage in this kind of deceptive social engineering. If you have a problem with jaywalking, enforce jaywalking laws. Crosswalk functions should be transparent: either manual with a button or automatic without a button. It fuels resentment to be toyed with by a clever social experiment, which is a small but real erosion of the trust relationship between government and citizenry. It's a hidden cost that isn't captured in the financial bottom line (cost savings being the original argument for leaving the buttons when intersections were converted to automatic).


I like that you assume a reasonable person would only lose a single cycle.

Once I walked up to a pedestrian scramble intersection with several people standing at it and it went around the cycle once in front of me and I realized none of them had pressed the button. I clarified aloud to them that you have to press the button as I pressed it. They exclaimed that they thought something was wrong with it as they had been waiting for 2 cycles already and didn't realize you needed to press the button.


To be fair, In Seattle there are many that are located comically far from the intersection. I’ve been through two light cycles until I found the button hiding in the distance.


And unless you remember which ones are fake, you always have to press. And because you don't know if the people in front of you pressed, you have to awkwardly walk past them and press it (again). It's always annoying me.


Newer signal buttons have an LED indicator that shows they've been pressed, which is a nice touch. Saves having to reach around someone to make sure they pressed the button already.


You could ask them to press it. "Excuse me, could you press the crossing button?" There are few strangers to social awkwardness.


what annoys me is that most of the walk buttons on street corners in LA actually need to be pushed to get the walk signal to come on, and people think they’re cool for not pushing the button now since “they don’t work”. so they end up either standing through two light cycles, or walking on a shortened cycle and making turning cars mad. just push the button!


I work in New York, but I go to Seattle periodically because that's where my company's headquarters is. How people treat the buttons is wildly different between those two cities. I hardly ever see anyone press the cross button in NY, since the convention is to wait for there to be no cars and then cross (and not bother with the button). In Seattle, I've seen people wait patiently at a cross walk even though there's no cars anywhere in sight.

I would imagine rather than a placebo effect, it's more of a self-selection phenomenon - rather than pressing a button making people more patient, the people who are more likely to follow "the rules" are more likely to press the button. And even if there is hypothetically a placebo effect, the result would be irrelevant if almost no one presses the button.


I believe jaywalking is illegal, and enforced in Seattle.

When I'm in the UK I will normally not press the pedestrian button (unless its the type of pedestrian only crossing which only activate with the button, not on traffic lights on a junction) . But when I'm in the US, or a different country with jaywalking laws, I will stick to the rules much more rigidly.

I also really enjoy the first time crossing a road when I get back, the taste of freedom!


Jaywalking is illegal pretty much everywhere in the US, but enforcement is very selective and regional.


That's interesting.

Just checked it for Germany, sensibly it's fined if you walk on the Autobahn or some other street limited to cars only. Crossing any other street - even if there is a crosswalk nearby - will only be fined if you at least create a danger for someone else. And then it's all <= 10€.


Jaywalking is a $1 ticket in Massachusetts. I believe it's there simply to assign fault in a crash.


A crash involving whom? I'd be shocked if a driver can hit a jaywalking pedestrian and not be at fault.


Massachusetts pedestrians are only guaranteed right of way in marked crosswalks that do not have a signal. When there is a signal the light denotes right of way.

https://malegislature.gov/Laws/GeneralLaws/PartI/TitleXIV/Ch...


It can definitely happen. I'm guessing it varies state by state, but I was hit by a car while out running. I was crossing at a green light, didn't press the button, and a car made a left turn at the same time and hit me. The police report said the driver was not at fault.


The idea is that the higher purpose of a $1 ticket is creating a paper trail of jaywalking behavior that could be useful in court.


First time I visited Seattle, I crossed a wide-ish, but completely clear street against the light. When I got across, an homeless-looking guy came running up to tell me, "Don't do that, man! Fifty dollars, and they'll catch you!"

I remember wondering how anyone ever got anywhere.


Weird. I've been downtown for 3 years now, and I've never seen or heard of anybody getting a jaywalking ticket. I pretty much use the New York style and cross the street when it's clear. I feel like I'm a competent enough adult to see when it's clear to go. However, I do watch the signals and give cars right-of-way when they have it.

What people do here is continue to cross after they lose right-of-way. This means cars have to sit through 3 or 4 lights before they can turn the corner. That's half the traffic problem with downtown Seattle.


I live in Seattle as well, and last year I saw some lady jay walk right in front of a cop car. The cop yelled out, "Hey maybe use the crosswalk next time." Without even turning around, she flipped the cop off and kept walking.

No ticket, nothing.


As far as I can tell, in Seattle, jaywalking is enforced with $60 fines for about a month every five years or so. Between fining episodes, rumors maintain obedience.


I always thought jaywalking was crossing outside of a marked crosswalk? I didn't know it had anything to do with the colour of the traffic light, that said, I also live in New York and we got our own rules anyhow.


As far as I'm aware, jaywalking is crossing outside a crosswalk (in my area I believe all intersections are considered to have crosswalks), OR against a light. If the hand says no go and you go, you're jaywalking.


In Boston, we cross in front of cars that have a green light :). Although honestly, the cars aren't moving because there's too much traffic to go anywhere as box-blocking laws aren't enforced as it is in NYC.


I once fell from my bike because of this behavior in Paris. I was basically in front of Notre Dame, car traffic was blocked at a green light but the bicycle lane was free. I was going at a good clip and a tourist crossed in front of me. I slammed my brakes and went over the handlebars avoiding the tourist.

I'm underlining it was a tourist not because I particularly like Parisians, but because there is enough bike traffic (and little electric cars) that most Parisians know not to cross using hearing only.


You do not generally have right of way in a marked crosswalk if you have a signal. Anywhere that doesn't have a signal you have the right of way at all times within a marked crosswalk only, regardless of the color of light, outside of marked crosswalks pedestrians are not guaranteed right of way in MA.

I used to be a Bostonian and am a current MA resident, though I work in Cambridge. I've played more chicken on Comm Ave than I care to admit. :)


For NY, peds get right of way at all road intersections, marked or not.



> ... box-blocking laws aren't enforced as it is in NYC.

I'm from NYC and they're definitely not enforced. (Outside of rare exceptions?) They happen all the time. On the major street I live on (two lanes each way), they recently converted one lane each direction to "bus only". There's more cars than fit in one lane, and so there are /regularly/ cars blocking the box, and I've never seen any kind of enforcement, just awful effects to traffic. (Even as a pedestrian. It's hard to predict what the drivers of those cars are going to do, even if you have the signal and you're in the crosswalk.)


The $70 dollar fine in Seattle will make anyone very patient.


Also, in New York, intersections whose signals don't change automatically on a (reasonably short) buttonless timer are vanishingly rare.


For my daughter quite often the highlight of our walk to the shops is that she gets to push the button at the traffic lights. Whether they do anything or not, she just loves pushing buttons.


My 3 little ones have to take turns pressing the button, otherwise it gets messy... by the time they have all pressed the button it's time to cross


In the UK, we have these little conical spinners on the bottom of the signal that start to turn when the light turns green. My son and I often make games out of them while we're walking around.


I notice a lot in London that there are a bunch of pedestrian lights in areas witha steady flow of traffic that will only work if the button has been pressed, yet every single day I see people, often the same people, stand there until someone else presses the button.

Part of me wonders if there's almost an aspect of not wanting to cause offense involved. If you're the person who presses the button, you're responsible for the ire of whatever drivers you delay, so you'll either wait for an gap to run across the road or someone else'll press the button and absolve you.


Not a Londoner, but I have zero regard for the interests and sensibilities of drivers. As a pedestrian, cyclist and driver, I feel safe in saying that the worst road users generally are (in order) drivers, cyclists and pedestrians.

Amusingly, that also goes in the same order of 'who is more likely to kill you if they run into you', which may play a part.

Eitherway, I always press the button. It doesn't matter if it's rush hour, middle of the day, or middle of the night.

My safety is more important than saving a driver a minute on their journey.


When I'm driving, it's the pedestrians that are idiots. When I'm walking, it's the drivers. Something I've always noted with amusement, how quickly the perspective changes. Like going through a Costco parking lot to find a spot, then parking and walking into the store.


I find that the worst pedestrians make the worst cyclists and drivers (and vice versa).

Being courteous in mixed traffic is all about predicting what others will do (and choosing what you do to not conflict with that) and behaving in a way that will let them predict what you will do (so they can act in a way that does not conflict with you). Being able to predict what others want to do is very important to be a courteous pedestrian/cyclist/driver. Generally speaking I find that people who hate a certain type of traffic do so because they do not empathize with that group of road users are bad at predicting what that group will do. This consequently makes them likely to be bad drivers/cyclists/pedestrians because it is harder for them to optimize their actions to not conflict with that other road users.


Londoner here - I personally don't press the button if it's only me and the road is not busy since the time I would save would be lost over all the people I would make stop just for me.

I've seen many people not press the buttons thinking it's just there as a placebo, it's mostly tourists though as it's common knowledge amongst Londoners that the button signals the traffic operating system that a pedestrian would like to cross.


My experience is even locals wait and don't press the button. Near where I live there is a pedestrian crossing across a busy road, and I've seen people waiting there many times without pressing the button. This is in Zone 2, far from where tourists would go.


kinda makes me think of the buttons on certain tube train doors which do nothing


(Another) Londoner here, regarding risking the ire of drivers - I used to feel like that and now no longer care - I press, wait and cross safely. Having seen enough close calls in London traffic or with bikes suddenly coming up and zooming past I value my safety more than inconveniencing cars.


I avoid pressing the button if there is a chance of crossing without having to delay traffic.

The only reason being that, when driving, I wish people would do the same since I always seem to get held up by a red light when the person who pressed the button has long since gone.


I do this, if the crossing interrupted traffic immediately then it would be better (imo; I'm both a driver, pedestrian, and cyclist), but they often wait, which when it's raining ...

Some low-use crossings on busier roads (in UK) will interrupt immediately. Presumably they realise that delay causes pedestrians to choose crossing without the traffic signals assistance; and so signal controllers go for the safer option of immediately acting on pedestrian request.


Not sure about signals in the UK, but the signals I've experienced in California tend to want a certain minimum time as green in a given direction... If that direction has been on a green for at least that long, any input for the other direction will cause the light to cycle immediately; and if the crossing button was used in that direction, the minimum time is usually increased.


I’ve seen this behavior in parts of Europe where offending other people in traffic is much less frowned-upon than in England. I think it’s just the case of everyone assuming that someone else has pressed the button.


Usually here in London there is a light showing if the button has been pressed or not.


If traffic is heavy and I think I won't get a chance to cross then I push the button. Otherwise I just wait and cross when there's a gap without bothering anyone.


In Toronto, most of the buttons have long done nothing to control the light cycle, and only trigger the audio crossing indicator. Lately they've been replacing the signs signs on these, with each now saying "Button for audible signal only". Good way to re-purpose the existing hardware.

See here for a comparison of old vs. new https://i.imgur.com/a0FXI5c.png


In Kitchener (just west of Toronto), we have a bunch of intersections where there are two possible changes. For a car-triggered change (from the inductive loop in the pavement), the light just changes for a few seconds, to get the car through. If you push the beg button, you get the pedestrian change, where there's a momentary walk signal followed by a countdown.

I get why this exists in terms of not having cars on the busy street waiting for a countdown when there's no actual person there, but I find it very frustrating that there's basically zero chance that I will just "get a green" crossing the busy street, since it's such a narrow window now. And because I can't trigger the road sensor with my bicycle, it also means I have to ride up on the sidewalk to get to the button.

I would really rather it was just a timer.


Interesting about the road sensor. In Vancouver (years ago, admittedly), I had no problem triggering the road sensor with my bike.


Interesting! I've never had success triggering them, though that's not surprising given I'm on an aluminum and carbon frame.

There was actually a kickstarter a few years ago to build a magnetic loop you could put on your bike to trigger the sensor via a button press, but unfortunately it didn't meet its funding target and seems to have gone underground: https://www.veloloop.com/faq/


If you've got metal rims, and the loops are reasonably tuned, you should be able to trigger them if you're well positioned. Apparently, adding a copper wire loop under your rim tape will work for carbon fiber rims as well.

There's some pretty good information here: https://www.bikewalknc.org/bicycle-detection-at-traffic-sign...

But I've been lucky enough to have California government on my side, I guess.


I just used a button yesterday in Herndon, VA (D.C. suburbs) that had the audio crossing indicator, and actually announced the street name with a voice when the light changed. My friend commented that it would seem unlikely a blind person would be crossing there, but I have a blind friend who commutes downtown every day on the Metro.

I don't know if the button does anything else, or if it was just repurposed like you describe.


Welp, that's a few hours I'm never getting back from that rabbit hole. I really should have seen the Admiral shouting about it being a trap.


Worse yet, at least in Somerville and the general Boston area, I'm seeing touch-sensitive buttons instead of physical buttons that depress--with no haptic feedback; and only some of them play a recorded "Wait" when you press.

I'm gradually training myself not to jam my finger painfully against them to be "sure" I pressed.

If it turns out they're also placebos, I think I'm just going to give one a good kick next time I go by...


Those aren't placebo buttons, rather for the hard of sight. The audible "Wait" is to tell to not cross yet, and it will then tick when it's safe to cross, and increasingly tick faster the time lowers.


Which doesn't explain the ones with neither haptic nor audible feedback.


In the same area; don't those have a visual light indicator that flashes when you press it?


There's some kind of light but I've never quite understood what the light means.


I'm fairly certain most, if not all, the lights in my area are automatic, however pressing the button rapidly causes the "wait" message to repeat as fast as you press it, which is a good way to pass the time while waiting.

More on topic, I wonder if people who jaywalk don't press buttons, or people who press buttons don't jaywalk? Seems like people who are already not going to jaywalk are more predisposed to button presses, but will not cross against the light even if they don't press the button.


I'll press if I think I can't jaywalk in a reasonable timeframe. If I can then no sense holding up traffic.


"people more readily obey a system which purports to heed their input". Sounds like democracy.


Democracy works by the very direct effect that almost always when anybody is powerful enough to make a coup and take the government, that somebody has been powerful enough to take the government by vote for a long time.

There are many indirect effects that may help, people feeling represented is one of them. But they are near to irrelevant when compared to that direct one.


Care to clarify your point?


In a country with millions of voters, a single vote isn't likely to be what decides who gets elected. In the limit of infinite voters, casting a vote is a lot like pressing a placebo button. It's not directly useful for the voter, but it makes the voter more likely to accept the outcome.


>In a country with millions of voters, a single vote isn't likely to be what decides who gets elected.

Forget worrying about single votes: even having most of the votes isn't necessarily enough to influence things! (Referring to the 2000 and 2016 presidential elections, and to the concept of gerrymandering.)


I wonder, has any research been done on the size of a democracy and how represented the average individual feels?


If people's behavior can be modified simply by giving them the perception of their input mattering then I would expect the coming AI interfaces/assistants and goal oriented concierge services to pick up on this and leverage it, which could get pretty creepy depending on the goals involved. Advertisement disguised as meaningful interaction.


I feel like there is a bit of ethical hysteresis here.

If you have buttons that are designed to be placebo from the start, I find that unethical.

If you have buttons that work, but have to be disabled due to a change in plans, that strikes me as less problematic (but they should still eventually be removed).

So, how you get there matters.


Eh. I think although it's a 'dark pattern', it's one with measured effects on behaviour that result in less people crossing against the light, which (I would assume) correlates with less accidents. I think calling it unethical is a bit much.


I am curious about the effect on the people long-term. I am not sure that reducing the number of people crossing against the light at the crossings in the article in particular tells the full story.

An analysis that considers the reduction in crossing against the light without weighing the consequences of dishonesty is incomplete.


Call it impractical then? At least in Lebanon, as people become aware of this deception, they came to reject crosswalk rules in general. Ethics notwithstanding, breaking the honesty clause of the social contract is going to backfire on you.


There are better ways though. A countdown that shows remaining time until green has both a positive effect on perceived wait time, the same effect on crossings without green and does not have this ethical problem.


I'm sure I'm in the minority but I don't even think it is that. If the button at each intersection prevents one accident (hospital or even death) then it is worth it. So people got tricked to be safer? Oh, the humanity. People who are going to cross anyway still will.


What if it prevents one accident today, but causes two accidents tomorrow?


What if eating cereal for breakfast is healthy today but causes two accidents tomorrow?


Hello diabetes!


It's immoral because you don't have the right to deceive and make decisions for other people.

Let's take the example further and see if you can find a point where it starts to be obviously unethical, then work your way backwards on the principle discovered.

How about we lie to you about the contents of your food, in some way that manipulates you to be healthier?

Still OK with that, why don't we tell you that something is vegetarian if you can never tell the difference, by your utilitarian metric you've increased my happiness, I got to enjoy some delicious meal.

If I find out you have one day left to live and that day will be happier not knowing that fact, do I have the right to lie to you about it? The utilitarian benefit calculation goes up so case closed right?

If someone if a devout Jehovah's witness, give them a blood transplant and deny that it ever happened, do you have the right to do that?

Not everyone is on the same utilitarian value curve as you and you don't have the right to mess with and deceive them because you think you're smarter than they are. Some (most) people value truth, dignity or reality in their utility function, and you might not even be smarter than all of them.


I'm sorry but I don't buy the slippery slope argument here. No one is saying that the ends justify the means. Is adding a stop sign to a random intersection any different? Who decided that people should stop there? In small towns, a lot of times it is because an elderly person went to the township meeting every week for years complaining so they gave up and added one, not because there is any inherent safety issue.

Governments and corporations literally lie to us every day. Not causing a light to change three seconds earlier (because it will still change) doesn't violate anyone's civil liberties or religion or cause their death. Governments do manipulate things already to make people healthier and safer. Soda taxes, seat belts, food pyramids (bought by the FDA) are all examples.

In this case, most municipalities have laws against jay walking. One could argue this is just an enforcement of that law.


If action X is unethical/immoral in some situation S, this in no way implies that for all situations, X is unethical/immoral. See killing people for an example, perhaps, or maybe telling people they are (not) ugly?


I think if people realise buttons may be placebo - this will reduce how much people use / wait for buttons in general.


I'm saddened to find a comment about ethics only after pages of uninteresting comments.

Placebos are psychological manipulation and that's why they are illegal in medicine in various countries.

Deception, especially in a safety-critical scenario, leads to mistrust, cynicism and even paranoid thinking.

Guess what? The antivax movement and most silly conspiracy theories are fueled by mistrust.


Agreed, and having the button there allows for more flexibility in the future. I know some buttons that went from doing something, then nothing, then something again.

Like they now will make sound when its your turn to cross for people with impaired sight, but only if the button is pressed so people living nearby don't have loud crossing sounds going off all the time.

Also some now activate flashing lights surrounding the crosswalk to alert drivers.


It's still better than the "nocebo buttons", which make the waiting longer the more often you press them :)


A nocebo is still inactive, just with negative rather than positive expectations. So the nocebo button would still be a button that doesn't do anything, but people believe that pressing it increases their wait time.


Wouldn't a countdown timer solve the need for those buttons?


How you get there matters for the budget. But ethically it is the same. In any case, you are consciously lying to people for their own good.

Is lying to people for their own good ethical? You decide, I don't think there is a correct answer.

In fact the second case (not removing the buttons) can be seen as the least ethical of the two. In the first case, it is an assumed choice, you did it because you think it is for the best.

In the second case, you let money guide your ethical choices. That's essentially Black Hat's answer to the trolley problem (https://xkcd.com/1455/)


It's not really about lying, IMO. (In any case, lying isn't even unethical. -- deceit is.) It's pretty much ok to deceive people if they indirectly agree to it and you stay within bounds of what they agreed to. It is not unreasonable to expect people will be ok with deception conducted to engage in data collection and scientific study, so long as the consequences are negligible, as they are here.

The only ethical problem here is caused if you do not use the collected data, or do not stop the study after a sufficient amount of data is collected.


This reminds me of an elevator's "Door Close" button. Manufacturers still include them for the peace of mind of passengers, despite computerized systems and many area laws (in the US, the ADA has language regarding door-open timespan for wheelchair access).

EDIT: Thanks to a_c_s for pointing out that the button can work when the elevator is in emergency/service mode. More fun information on elevators, crosswalk and other buttons can be found here: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/28/us/placebo-buttons-elevat...


In my office (in Germany), when the elevator door opens and I hold the "close door" button, it immediately starts closing as soon as it's finished opening. So at least that one is definitely not a placebo.


Same here in the UK. Both the close and open buttons work immediately after being pressed in my office, so they're clearly not placebos.


Elevator "door close" buttons can fall into several categories.

1. They work as labeled, immediately closing the door.

2. They work, but only after door has been open longer than a threshold time, or only if the door open time has been extended using the "door open" button.

3. They work, but only when the elevator is in some special mode such as fire/emergency mode.

4. They are supposed to work, but broke. A broken "door close" button does not put the elevator out of service, and might not even be noticed at all (especially if it is a category #2 button) for a long time, and so a broken "door close" button can stay broken for a very long time.

5. They would work except they have been disabled by the owner, perhaps to comply with laws, or perhaps because there were too many assholes prematurely shutting doors.

6. They are placebos.


The door close button is used when the elevator is in fire service mode (where all actions are manually activated)


Interesting - and makes sense! A detail missed by my tour at the Elevator History Museum in New York, NY. [elevatorhistory.org]


They're not placebos in all cases. They definitely work in one tall bank building I worked in in Canary Wharf.


Pros: You save money & reduce jaywalking. Cons: you spread germs and further erode trust and respect for government. The saved money and jaywalking compliance are Pyrrhic victories as citizens sass officers and vote for tax-cutting politicians.


> you spread germs

Really? I don't think there would be any change or effect regarding microbes passed around the population if pedestrian crossing buttons did not exist. They just aren't a disease vector, or at the most optimistic are down in the statistical noise at a one in millions chance of having an effect.


Yeah. Given that coffee pots are the most virulent vector in the workplace, it seems unlikely that a button everyone presses with their fingers is not an important vector as well. The issue is getting germs on your fingertips, and then wiping your eyes or nose with those fingers.

If pump handles are a problem, I bet traffic buttons are as well.


Interesting, did not know about coffee pots. However for pump handles the contact area and time in contact is much greater than a single touch of one fingertip, plus the fact that it is much more likely for the hand on the pump to then immediately be in contact with drinking utensils or even wiping the mouth etc. So I still think crossing buttons are not a plausible vector. Be happy to read any sources that contradict this though...


Just a quick and dirty literature search on pubmed:

When you have a cold or flu and wipe your nose, pressing a light switch transfers active viruses to the switch. (J Med Virol. 2007 Oct;79(10):1606-10. Environmental contamination with rhinovirus and transfer to fingers of healthy individuals by daily life activity. Winther B1, McCue K, Ashe K, Rubino JR, Hendley JO.)

Flu and cold viruses found on handrails, TSA luggage trays, & buttons of airport payment machines (BMC Infect Dis. 2018 Aug 29;18(1):437. doi: 10.1186/s12879-018-3150-5. Deposition of respiratory virus pathogens on frequently touched surfaces at airports. Ikonen N1, Savolainen-Kopra C2, Enstone JE3, Kulmala I4, Pasanen P5, Salmela A5, Salo S4, Nguyen-Van-Tam JS3, Ruutu P2; PANDHUB consortium.

Viruses contaminating touched surfaces last for about 7 days, maybe more. (Am J Infect Control. 2018 Jan;46(1):105-107. doi: 10.1016/j.ajic.2017.07.014. Epub 2017 Oct 12. Isolation and identification of human coronavirus 229E from frequently touched environmental surfaces of a university classroom that is cleaned daily. Bonny TS1, Yezli S2, Lednicky JA3.

Viruses on contaminated surfaces last longer outdoors in sub-zero temperatures than in heated indoor environments (Appl Environ Microbiol. 1983 Oct;46(4):901-5. Survival of human parainfluenza viruses in the South Polar environment. Parkinson AJ, Muchmore HG, Scott EN, Scott LV.)

Touching a surface and then wiping your eyes or nose gives you a 50% chance of getting a cold/flu (Am J Epidemiol. 1982 Nov;116(5):828-33. Transmission of experimental rhinovirus infection by contaminated surfaces. Gwaltney JM Jr, Hendley JO.)


So it means sometimes cars should stop even when there is no pedestrian trying to cross the road? I thought initially these buttons were made to improve road traffic.


In the article they point out that the switches have been removed/deactivated on intersections where there is no benefit. In other words, there is nearly always a pedestrian waiting at that point in the cycle. Some intersections that don't see that same pattern continue to have a working button.


You don't have this kind of problems in Paris. Nobody cares about the crossing lights here :)

It's pretty impressive, or scary, when you come from a country where people respect the crossing lights, but once you're accustomed to it, you just can't stand waiting for the green light if there is no car in sight (let's be honest, no car in 30m range is enough)


In Germany, there is a twist: When you press such a placebo button, a white light that reads "warte" (wait) starts flashing.


We have many different kinds of buttons. Difference 1, of course, is functional vs non-functional. Both exist. Then there are acoustic buttons that activate the sound upon turning green. Sometimes these are normal buttons, sometimes you can't press the normal ones and the sound button is below it, and sometimes there are two buttons. Some traffic lights have some kind of notification that one of all these types of buttons was pressed, sometimes they don't.

There is no rhyme or reason for how traffic light buttons work in Germany. It all seems random.


With all that AI fuss and widespread video surveillance, would it be that hard to mix the two, then count the number of cars and optimize traffic/pedestrian lights accordingly?


The number of frusturating failure modes and possible abuses simply boggles the mind.


Seems there is an important opportunity here to apply machine learning to video feeds of incoming traffic and people flow, and shape the phases to minimize wait time for all citizens, equally. The current systems require expensive induction loops and only care about cars and button pushers, this being how we got here.

If people learn the system acknowledges their needs and tries it best to let them cross safely, it might lead to much better long term compliance then some fake buttons which are bound to be exposed as fake. The whole idea of giving higher priority to cars is an insult to taxpayers walking their neighborhoods.


It would be better to just build smaller intersections that do not need millions of dollars worth of signals and cameras and ML inference rigs.


The cost of smart trafic lights is peanuts compared to the costs of reconfiguring and rebuilding a major intersection.


Your comment is based on no data at all and just a handful of assumptions that are most certainly far from true.


I happen to work for a council and know the general order of magnitude for road infrastructure investments - I participate in their approval. I would file this suggestion of "building smaller intersections", that is, completely re-routing the traffic flows in a given area, in the purely fantastical bin.

If we could squeeze 20% more traffic capacity from a given congested intersection with a one time investment of, say, under €200K, it would be a major breakthrough. We use a complex system that involves periodically measuring traffic flows using pneumatic tubes, then feeding that data to a computerized model that will produce the timing sequences for the lights lights and their evolution during a day. There is a crew moving around the district installing these tubes and counters for a week or so.

The current state of the art are induction loops embedded in the asphalt that measure the number of incoming vehicles and adjust the timings in real time. A purely optical detection that can work in all weather and recognize all types of vehicles or even pedestrians would be quite a feat.

Anyway, thank you for your factual and data infused contribution.


Hahaha well that's all you had to say! You're more informed than your first comment led me to believe. Thanks for writing this out. If you wish to avoid my disparaging remarks in the future, lead with this and not vacuous negativity on someone else's thoughts.


To me the only purpose for having a button is for intersections that only go red when there is a car or pedestrian waiting to cross.





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