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Placebo Button (placebobutton.com)
430 points by luu on June 9, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 189 comments

Brilliant idea and I feel like I've already got what I pressed - "focus". The first thing, of course, is to write a comment on HN and then I'll focus :)).

But the concept might just work.

People believe in crazy, irrational things and it actually seems to help them, so why not a button which does this ?

Here's a story. Last month I've travelled to Romania, which is a beautiful country and one of the main attractions there is the multitude of churches and beautiful monasteries on top of mountains. So I arrived at this monastery where a famous priest was buried and people from all over the country and the world come and visit his grave. They wait for hours in line and eventually they get maybe 30 seconds in front of his grave and they kneel and kiss the cross and make all kinds of wishes. From a rational perspective, what those people are doing is totally absurd - even if the dead priest could manipulate this world from 'the other world', why would people think that in order to be helped they have to kiss his grave ?

But I've heard countless stories of miracle cures - cancers, paralysis, etc, after people visited his grave so maybe there is a force at work which helps them, which I think is the force of placebo.

Stories like this are abundant all over the world so if you're in the Church of the Digital, a digital button might just be a trigger for some force inside our minds.

a digital button might just be a trigger for some force inside our minds

Yup. Proof of that right here:


Oh, wait, the experiment ended? The button finally hit 0!


The game is over? Everyone will go back to their lives? Not quite.....


It hit zero multiple times, and they just kept resetting it. I think it just ended with them taking it down.

That's not entirely correct. What actually happened was that the button itself had a buffer which accounted for the possibility of people pressing the button, but the press registering 'late'. The buffer was 2 seconds I believe, and because of that even when the button hit zero, you could still press it for two seconds until it actually ends. So, it did hit zero more then once, but the click-buffer never expired until the time it actually ended - All the times before that, an account clicked the button before the click-buffer expired.

Ah, that makes sense, thank you.

I was under the impression that each reset was in some way due to network issues, either reddit being down briefly or a valid press not resetting the timer. Either way, it's gone long enough. I am both surprised and not surprised there is a necro sub to keep it going.

I think that's what the admins claimed, but there was some disbelief, and external monitoring websites were showing the button as being at 0 for a few seconds each time. If it were an actual problem, I think it would remain at 0 until it got noticed, not just for a few seconds.

Noticed that the post never says anything like "it finally reached zero", it just mentions who the last presser was.

For what it was worth I saw one of the times it went down. The monitor started beeping so I went to the tab and watched it count down to zero. Hitting refresh presented me with the "reddit is down" logo and nothing on reddit worked so I believe them when they say everything simply went down. Just think about it, it was an april 1st gag, it wasn't suppose to have this type of uptime.

Ah, then I stand corrected.

It was a mix of the Cassandra servers serving the button being down and the buffer mentioned previously.

and Nocebo (the opposite) works, too. so i think it's possible that both works, it's just because it happens with our unconscious mind so it's hard to justify or falsify.

Which church in Romania is this?

Are you interested in advice about how to focus better?

Yes I am.

> That means, if I give you a placebo, and tell you it's a placebo, there's a 1 in 3 chance it will help alleviate symptoms of whatever I say it's for.

I've seen this avert bad trips.

"This is a coin. It's just a regular coin from my pocket, but I want you to carry, and know that as long as you carry this coin - for the rest of the night - you'll be safe."

I've heard of this idea before and it sounds great. But I can think of a hack for it that could make the trip even worse.

"This is a coin. It's just a regular coin from my pocket, but I want you to carry, and know that as long as you carry this coin - for the rest of the night - you'll be safe."

(lean in close to whisper into the recipient's ear)

"But if you lose the coin...if you lose the coin, you're doomed, mate. Completely f*cking doomed."

My mind automatically read that last sentence in a pikey accent.

in pro audio equipment, there is often a flashy colored button on the panel, unmarked, that the documentation call the "client button". it does absolutely nothing, and the manufacturer suggest you press it when the client is annoying you for "more weight" or "more color" or some other nonsense.

This is brilliant, reminds me of the story I heard of how Michelangelo was working on a statue, might have been the David, and the patron walked in and said something along the lines of, "Looks good, but the nose is a little big, can you make it a little smaller?".

Michelangelo knew the nose was just right, so he grabbed a handful of marble dust, went up to the face and pretended to chisel it while slowly letting out his handful of dust.

When he was done, the patron said, "There! It's perfect."

Really wish I had had a button like that back when I was doing audio production.

Sounds like a "duck" in programming parlance:


acts_as_enterprisey gives you a similar effect for Rails.


Was it because he couldn't tell, or because he didn't want to push on the issue?

Couldn't tell.

See bikeshedding. People just want to feel like they contributed something.


Interesting article. In my experience, the converse is often true: Engineers want to solve the difficult issues, while the more trivial get relatively little attention and end up causing most of the issues.

This fake button digital nonsense does nothing for me; I need that fake knob analog placebo effect!

It sounds crazy but most sound engineers have accidentally done this to themselves. You tweak a knob, hear the difference, and then noticing the whole channel was muted and wonder what it was that you just heard change.

The alarming thing is how that can happen to you over and over and you still you're SURE you'd never fall for it.

Digital placebo can work.

I was once debugging some issue with my laptop's multimedia buttons driver. I found some tweak which helped: enable the tweak, reboot - works fine, disable tweak, reboot - no go. Tested repeatedly several times.

I filed a bug report and received an answer that my tweak absolutely cannot work. The tweak was disabled at the time and the button didn't work. I pressed it again after reading this email and boom - it works.

I swear.

I figure my mind must have been believing so much in futility of pressing this button that it didn't even bother pushing it all the way down. Scary stuff.

Not to dismiss what you're saying, but in this case the 'client button' is for tricking the annoying client into thinking you're making a change when you've really done nothing.

This is kind of the same idea as throwing in a duck[1] or hairy arms[2]:

1: http://blog.codinghorror.com/new-programming-jargon/ 2: http://www.oliverburkeman.com/blog/posts/the-theory-of-the-h...

I heard a minor variation of that, in which the button just kicked the playback volume up, exploiting the effect that louder music often feels "better".

Hmm. Could you please give a reference? Couldn't come up with results on Google...

A different approach I've seen is often referred to as "hairy arms".

It's not the same as a placebo or client button but it addresses the issue of people who would otherwise diminish a project through nitpicking and wanting to put their own touch on everything.

The idea came from animation (Disney, I believe) where the art directors were always asking the artists to make changes just to feel like they had some input and control. The animators started adding hair on the arms of the characters as an obvious thing the directors could latch onto and demand the artists modify. The artists didn't want the hairy arms to begin with but it was a way to keep the directors from screwing up something "important" just so they could feel special.

Do you have any examples of this? My dad owns a recording studio and I've joked with him about turning up the "silver knob" which doesn't exist. Kind of an inside joke, but never seen anything like you're talking about. Certainly haven't seen it "often".

This link had three examples, none of which had anything to do with audio equipment.

Choose your own well-researched 'tokenadult rejection of placebo efficacy here: https://hn.algolia.com/?sort=byPopularity&prefix=false&page=...

I agree. I will just to copy one sentence of the first comment of tokenadult:

> [...] In actual practice, placebos only look effective when the statistical tests in a study are poor, and most especially when the symptoms are self-reported by patients. Placebos are NOT effective in treating actual disease states or improving "hard endpoints" such as reduction of all-cause mortality or major morbidity from specific diseases with verifiable physiological signs. [links with support information]

Interesting. I wonder if this is affected by the recent discovery of the tube connecting the immune system to the brain though?

You jest? If not, explain or source? Thx

Not advocating for its veracity, but [1].

[1] http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/06/150601122445.ht...

I didn't bother to look up the primary literature, but check Scientific American, March 2015, article by Kevin Tracey, pp. 30-35. As always, don't blame the named author for all the fluff added for the general reader.

Haha, great link. He really does have an axe to grind.

Reminds me of a brain hack I employ. Intentionally worshipping Placebo as a god makes me laugh, thus activating his miraculous healing powers: http://zencephalon.com/placebo

This is beautiful and I may have to start calling upon Placebo now an then.

Oh, wow, U made The Tarot of the Silicon Dawn? Beautiful deck!

Yep! Glad you like it, thanks!

These days I'm mostly busy with a graphic novel: http://egypt.urnash.com/rita/

This is a great blog!

Reminds me of Bokononism a bit.

It's not the placebo effect working despite the user not having faith in it.

By providing the information you do on the web page, you are suggesting (and perhaps convincing) the user that the placebo will work despite being a placebo. Therefore, it might work by a placebo effect on the effectiveness of the placebo.

You are placebo-ing the placebo. Inception all over again, eh.

What if the thing you ask it is to get rid of the irrational mechanisms that makes placebos works on you even though you know they are placebos?

On the other hand there's http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJM200105243442106, a meta-analysis which shows that while placebos might make people feel better, you don't actually get better – which is about what you'd expect and probably not shocking to most of you... but you'd be surprised at the mystical powers that are sometimes ascribed to placebos.

You did not specify who or what should turn red. Probably you are now, when realising that.

Are you sure you didn't turn red?

I read a story about a guy who changed his password into his next goal. Every day he had to type it and was reminded by his goal.

This button might also be a great goal reminder...

Edit: https://medium.com/@manicho/how-a-password-changed-my-life-7...

I've done that. It's the equivalent of "I love my wife". Guess whose idea it was? :)

Make the SEO play here. Create a static link for each button with the text that I type in, so I can link people right to it. Then, with proper title and headings, etc you can probably get some traffic for "random long tail term button"

Love it. I think I'll implement that.

I would love to see this feature.

My wife gets headaches. A linkable button text allows me to send her a magic "headache relief" button. Much bigger impact than a self-prescribed button.

There are lots of actual placebo buttons out there in the world on pedestrian crossings, elevators, etc.; see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Placebo_button for an overview.

Placebo buttons in pedestrian crossing street lights are plain evil. Also, https://xkcd.com/277/

But also not 100% the case. Where I live (Calgary, AB) most cross walk signals are only activated by pressing the button. If you don't press the button, you just get the orange hand the whole time.

True, and same with the button to keep the door open in elevators. Both where huge surprises to me when I moved here.

After discovering this it has become a habit to check elevator buttons to see if they are real or placebo.

Noting that some replies here are describing positive results, I wonder if atheist organizations could make use of the principal. Have an understanding that for the one hour every Sunday that you spend together in the while building, you will say things you all acknowledge as nonsense. But keep up the pretense for that hour and do the chants and make the incantations because we find that it makes us feel happier and more looked after. Then stream out the doors at the end to resume our devout denial.

Actually, many people may be doing this already.

Yes they are.

I have always thought it would be a good idea to rationally take all the parts of religious and social societies and bring them together in a way that provides everything that religion provides without all the useless and bad ideas. Combine this with technology and you would have a hit.

That's what the Unitarian church is supposed to be, I think. I attended a few of their services out of curiosity, and they were similar to church services except there was no mention of religion. Instead of hymns there was classical and folk music, instead of bible readings there were readings from secular literature (Thoreau seemed to be a favorite), and so on. There was a lot of talk about self-improvement, doing volunteer work, etc.

Unitarian-Universalism is a big tent which includes both a (heterodox, from the perspective of mainstream Christianity, which is Trinitarian) branch of Christianity and a diverse array of non-Christian congregations.

Some time last year I read a bit of Religion for Atheists[0] which touched on some of the same contents. I came away with a certain sense of being condescended, but also some interesting ideas along these lines. If you haven't read it, it may be worth looking up at your local library.

[0]: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religion_for_Atheists

Discordians do this nonsense 23/7.

23/5, No?

Indeed, the Discordian week is five days. I just figured it would obscure the pun too much. I could have done it better and have my cake both ways.

I typed in "cure my superstitious beliefs," and it totally worked!!!

The placebo effect is not a superstitious belief, however, if that's what you're trying to imply. This isn't a tarot card or horoscope button or something. Placebos are legitimate science.

Or flip it:

Placebos are another face on the basic processes underlying what we call "magic", with all of the "mystical" "woo" removed.

"Fix my code" has yet to produce a tangible result, but I shan't give up easily!




Maybe I should have tried that instead of "Smite My Enemies" huh.

I don't know. A good smiting does wonders for the soul.

That was just bizarre. Had a stomach ache. Typed 'stomach ache', hit the button. Ache gone.

The brain is a strange, strange organ.

Lucky you, my sinuses are still plugged.

This is great, but I have a feeling that it's not very well executed. For the placebo effect to work you still need to take the pill, which means that you suggest something might happen. Here the reaction time is way too fast, so it's obviously a fluke for the mind. Add a progress bar that simulates a long and non linear process, and I think the effect is going to be much greater.

So I had a similar idea a long time ago (when I worked at a gaming company) to put a large illuminated button right on the front panel of the machine, simply labelled:

    [ LUCK ]
...that did absolutely nothing. It would have (by design) NOT been connected to anything other than lamp power. I'm convinced it would have been a great hit. My colleagues were not as convinced.

Misinterpreted the question, "what do you want your button to do", and typed "Turn red." Needless to say, it turned red.

> Needless to say


Many ailments have a stress-related component, as the purpose of our stress response is to handle an immediate threat, diverting energy away from long-term tasks like healing, fighting infection etc.

A placebo is a reassurance, that we don't need to worry, we are being looked after, protected, safe, and everything will be ok.

Thus, the immune system gets its resources back, and gets on with its job. We heal.

sorry, no references, just seems a simple explanation of the observed evidence (eg so strong that double-blind experimental design is required to prevent it confounding drug test results).

You think it has cured you even you know it is a placebo because there is a study that says it and you put your faith in it. The study itself is a placebo. A metaplacebo.

Now that I know the study is fake, does the whole thing collapse? :)

It's turtles all the way down.

Can we eat them?

I typed in "cure my headache", clicked the button, and felt the unmistakable feeling of endorphins flooding my brain. Maybe. Might be mistaken.

similarly, I typed 'cure my migraines' and felt relief at the sight of 'Done!'

Doing it to yourself isn't so much the placebo effect, but rather autosuggestion. It was created by Émile Coué, who used to tell his patients to tell themselves every morning, "Every day, I am getting better" (in French of course).


The actual quote is,

"Every day in every way, I am getting better and better"

(Original: "Tous les jours à tous points de vue je vais de mieux en mieux")

I'm a phd student in marketing and my research is on the placebo effect. Not only does the research back up the idea of a "placebo" button, but also its evil cousin the "nocebo". That is, if you typed in something negative (I.e. This will make my head hurt) then if you are prone to suggestion (as many people are) the. You will feel worse.

I already feel much better after pressing the button.

I typed up "Placebo Effect" in the little box, clicked, and - wouldn't you know it - I felt cured from Placebo Effect instantly!

But how would you bring it back?

This button needs to enable url query parameters so I can send custom buttons to other people.

Love it. I'm gonna do it. (I made the site a couple years back.)

Soon to be available for iPhone, Android, and Windows Phone. Only $2.50 per month. You can opt out of marketing communications for an extra $3.95 per month.

It is already available for android (I made it). Right now is free (but it might contain additional premium buttons in the future;). If you would like to try it go here https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=it.nadolski.pl...

With in-app purchases!

Or get the Ultra edition for $25 a month. It costs so much so it will work better.

It worked with <marquee> and other HTML tags , not sure if bug or feature :D

Looks like it just puts HTML onto the page, you can do JavaScript as well at a glance (so long as you add <script></script> and an event to trigger, since pageload already happened)

I entered "Self Destruct DO NOT PRESS!"

...FWEW! Just the adrenaline kick I needed.

You probably know the joke (from popstar Zizek) :

When a friend of Niels Bohr (quantum theory) goes to his house in the country side he's bewildered by a horse shoe hanging on the great scientific genius's door. When Niels opens the friends asks : "but truly a rational man like you, how could you give any credit to such superstitions" and Niels Bohr answers : "Well I heard that superstition works even if you don't believe in it"

Yes I'm amazed by the power of placebo because "it works even if you know its a one/don't believe in it."

I actually wrote in the placebo field : "Give me a break". And my God it worked. I felt relieved. Like that weight on my chest just faded away. Although I suspect the fact the button/pill is blue has something to do with it.

Anyway who cares... "Give me a steak"

A list of items entered into the Placebo Button would be quite interesting, grouped together by similarities.

That flashing background effect is a little off-putting. At first I thought something was wrong with the fluorescent lights in my office, then I realized I don't have any fluorescent lights in my office...

Could we have a red button, which would be better for "activating" suggestions like increased energy, in addition to the blue button, best for "inhibiting" suggestions like pain relief?

How about hint text in the edit box that changes for each page serve: "I will become a better person" "The neighbors will become less noisy" "I will achieve my goals in life"

What a beautiful piece of magic for rationalists!

Really. Go read 'The Camel Rides Again' with an open mind: http://thebaptistshead.co.uk/2007/09/16/the-camel-rides-agai... (it's short) and consider how this is any different from the methods described there.

I seem to recall an application where the developer inserted a completely pointless delay after clicking the button before reporting completion, because people couldn't quite believe that a computer (or anything) could complete such a big important task in a fraction of a second.

Maybe this button should wait a random period of time. Its doing really important work.

I asked it to finish all my client work this week so I could spend more time with my family and also work on my neglected side projects. Looking in git, there are zero new commits, so I'm assuming this didn't work (or the fairies it invokes don't believe in version control, which is equally worrying). 1 star, would not click again.

I tried "make the work day go by faster" (I'm currently stuck at the sales desk -- again -- instead of getting real work done, because the lead rep is on vacation -- again). I've been browsing HN for the past 10 minutes of my afternoon break, and it's like the break was over way too soon. So...working, maybe?

This is normal human tendencies and I believe even placebo effect is part of daily routine...which could be changed just as habits...there could be certain chances that it will turn once individual brain to be addictive.....its funny that blackmajic is shifting its platform to software...serious upgrade...

it may be "magick", but how is it "black magick"? seems more like a "chaos magick" thing, and they've been exploring the digital side of this for a couple of decades already, since the 90s at least (that I know about).

I already have begun levitating...In just a few days, I will finally be able to fly--just like Superman.

FYI, I added the ability to pass a parameter in, and share your button. So, like, http://placebobutton.com/?b=Cure%20my%20headache

Thanks everybody!

I wonder if a reminder would work in the same way. Set a recurring reminder on your phone. Dismissing it is your Placebo. The act of swiping that notification off your phone just might fix what ails you.

Focusing illusion states "Nothing In Life Is As Important As You Think It Is, While You Are Thinking About It"

I think the Placebo button addresses this, as this is a cause of significant stress in our lives.

Crazy as it sounds but as some/many/most illnesses are psychosomatic just by making yourself believe you'll be healthy you actually will be. This is solid science not some mumbo-jumbo.

Awesome way to build a database of people's biggest problems.

Can I set the text via a url or query arg, e.g. http://placebobutton.com/?foo+bar ?

Just at a glance, it doesn't seem to record the requests. This would be a great stealth survey for problems to solve if it saved the requests anonymously.

Most of the requests probably wouldn't be practically solvable (by computers anyway).

It would be an interesting survey though.

I'd like to see the placebo effect correlated with IQ.

My favorite version was this:


So, what did I want the button to do? I tried the following with success: "visual changes on press then revert to original state"

You can make this very mind-twistingly self-referential ...

What if you enter in this phrase:

"Pressing this button will cause my placebo effect to go away"

Solar eclipse? [0]

[0] http://oglaf.com/evensong/ Warning: Previous and Next Story pages of linked cartoon are NSFW (cartoon sex) and the linked page might even be NS depending on how prudish your workplace is about language.

I prefer the Ham Button: http://hambutton.com/

A mechanical button would work even better. Now that's science or at least a hypothesis you could test scientifically.

Is that true? I wonder how the trueness of that has varied over time. At first, who knew what computers could do ("pray, Mr. Babbage..."), then the magic wore off and mechanical buttons were still what got things done, now we're headed for "what's a mechanical button"...

'course it's true it's a hypothesis.

I can't believe this made it to the top of HN. Shouldn't it be Show HN? BTW, did not work for me for that stats.

I didn't post it to HN. I built the site 2 years ago and somebody else just discovered it. :)

I wonder if being told that "a placebo works, even though you know it is a placebo", is itself a placebo.

I clicked it 3 times so my EV would be 1.

I typed that I would be very productive today, and I was more productive than I've been in weeks.

So if I click it 3 times one of those times my wish will come true? (Well, scientifically speaking?)

Typed 'make people stop using javascript'. And it didn't work cause of NoScript :(

what if by pressing the button you get the feeling of accomplishment without doing any of the work? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NHopJHSlVo4

It would be good if I could pre-write the purpose of the button and email it to a friend.

It would be nice to see the data.

Is "placebo works even when its known that its a placebo" a placebo ?

I typed "make it not so quiet in here" and clicked it. It worked!

So is there a placebo button that supports "force touch" yet? ;)

I typed, "make me a millionaire" and it didn't work :(.

I typed "improve click count" and it worked like a charm.

But then I tried "cure RSI" and hundreds of clicks later it only seemed to have gotten worse...

You're supposed to type "I am a millionaire". That'll do it.

Did that, checked my bank account, still nothing :(.

Earning a million dollars is different from retaining it. Add up your lifetime income, and you might be surprised how much you had - and spent.

Upvoted. Too true. :(

Check under your mattress :)

Come back and click it again tomorrow.

It didn't work yet.

Did you specify currency? Odds are pretty good that you're worth over a million yen.

may I ask you how much you make with ads? ( just out of curiosity )

I built the site; until today I made approximately ZERO dollars. Today I've seen 20k+ hits, and made $60.

Thanks for answering. That's way more than I expected!

Does it work if I write a cron job to click the button for me?

A placebo won't work if you know it's a placebo.

Placebos may still work, even if you know it is a placebo - http://www.theguardian.com/science/2010/dec/22/placebo-effec...

I've been pushing this all afternoon. Feels great.

I typed "kill me" and it didn't work.

How can you tell? Do you have 'showdead' turned on?

Not instantly

I typed "kill me right now" and it didn't work.

I should grow my startup this way. Seems to work!

Now open source the data. :)

That sound is fantastic.

Mindhacker News.

I cured aids

> Did you know the Placebo Effect can occur even when you know it's a placebo? It's true.

Wait... a meta-placebo? :-)

I tried "Raise my HN Karma". So far nothing.

Why so much code for a single button?

  <table id="btn_table" style="padding-bottom:10px" height="300" width="300">
    	<tbody><tr><td style="cursor:pointer; background-image: url(img/button.png); background-repeat:no-repeat;" onclick="pushbutton()" height="300" align="center" valign="middle">
			<table height="250" cellpadding="0" cellspacing="0" width="250"><tbody><tr><td align="center" valign="middle"><span id="btn_text" style="width:250px; word-wrap:break-word; color:#ffffff; text-align:center; font-family: Arial bold, Helvetica, sans serif; font-size:36px"></span></td></tr></tbody></table>

Because they're not a web developer?

Because I'm a LAZY web developer.

I want to be able to send someone a link to a specific button.

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