Do crosswalk buttons really do anything? And other pseudoscientific matters

This is important stuff. Along the lines of whether or not Bigfoot is real. So let’s talk about it for a moment.

The crosswalk buttons in my neighborhood work. At least some of them. Last summer and the summer before, Huxley and I would walk around quite a bit, crossing through intersections that at other times I would drive through, and from the latter vantage (driving) I’d observe people at intersections trying to get a walk light. Between our pressing of the buttons, and my observations of others, I’m pretty sure that the lights change to “walk” during the traffic signal cycle far more often, possibly in some cases only, when someone has pressed the button.

Or at least I think that’s what they do. But now that I think about it, maybe not.

But I do know this: there is a secret code that you can punch into a crosswalk button that can force the signal system to give you the Walk light. No, really. It goes like this:

3 Fast Clicks, 2 clicks, holding on the each of the two for at least 5 seconds, 1 fast, 2 held ones again, and then 3 fast clicks

The first time I tried that it worked like a charm. So I’m sure it works. I’ve not had a chance to try that since then, though, because all but one of the buttons in my neighborhood are of a new type that isn’t really a button, it’s more of a touch screen. Damn them.

People who are easily convinced of the veracity of new information know that crosswalks can be manipulated if you know the code. Because somebody told you the code (which is just complex enough to never remember when you need it). Hyper-Skeptics, often, know that crosswalks are all fake, and that they do nothing. Various studies have been done, all that I know of using invalid or questionable techniques (I mean, after all, none of them use a placebo crosswalk) that show that crosswalk buttons either work a little or don’t work at all. References here.

But what about elevator buttons, including the ones that tell the door to open or close? And, what about that special code to make an elevator go to a specific floor, like in a hospital where nurses have a patient who is bleeding out and they have to get to the Trauma Surgery Floor right away? I’m told that in a hospital, you can just hold your finger on the button of the floor you are going to, and the elevator will not stop at any intervening floors. I’ve tried that, and it didn’t work, so I was probably doing it wrong.

Here’s a funny story Terry Deacon used to tell (probably still does) about an elevator, illustrating how humans gain and use “knowledge.” There is an elevator in Harvard’s psychology building, William James Hall. There is a set of glass doors in the front of the building, and a fairly large lobby, with the elevators on the opposite side of the lobby. Also, the approach to the front doors is across a large plaza. So, you can be easily 50 feet or more from the building and see the elevators, and see that at least one of them is open. Then you have to cross the plaza, which will often mean walking against a 50 mph wind coming at you at a 45 degree angle due to the permanent tornadic vortex that the building creates owing to it’s carefully placed position on the landscape. Then you go through the doors, then across the huge lobby.

The theory is (though this is conjecture, it’s good conjecture) that the designers of the building set the elevator doors to stay open for a long time because people would get very frustrated by having the doors always close in their faces after having seen them open during the Long Trek into the building. This means that if you enter the elevator soon after the doors are open, they take forever to close.

This, in turn, has led people to take measures. Sometimes desperate measures. It starts with pressing your floor’s button. The doors don’t close. You press that button again. The doors don’t close. You press it a series of times, quickly, or hold your finger on it. The doors don’t close. You press the door-close button. The doors don’t close. Finally, you stand there and jump up and down a little to give the elevator a shake. And that works!

Or, more exactly, whatever the last thing you did before the door finally closes on its own time seems to work, and so now, that is the thing you know works. From now on that is the thing you do. It may never work again, but you keep trying it, believing, perhaps, that you are simply doing it wrong or that the elevator is temporarily broken, rather than changing your mind about what works.

So now, all the Psychology faculty and students working or taking classes in William James Hall, the Psychology building, each have their own fetish about getting the elevator going. So if you stand there in the lobby and watch during a busy period, you can see five or six adults get into the elevator, and each starts a different series of rituals…pushing the buttons in a certain order, hopping up and down, rubbing their lucky talisman…until finally the door closes, they each feel like they caused it, and they go on their merry operant-conditioned ways.

There is a third similar arena in which we humans fully control…or do not control at all…the reality we exist in, and I think you’ve already guessed what I’m talking about: manipulating the sensors that are buried beneath the pavement at various traffic lights, especially in little used left turn lanes. Maybe if you move the car forward a bit, the “light” will “know” you are there and turn green for you. Or maybe you jump up and down vigorously in your seat to rock the car and give the buried sensor a little what-for. Any of those techniques will work, and eventually the light will change, right?

The Teen Skeptics have let lose another podcast, this one on pseudoscience, which is a large topic, with many facets, many of which they touch on. The discussion of cross walk buttons is at about 39 minutes.

They also cover the Universe’s oldest star that was not in silent films, cloning a Neanderhal, Curiosity Rover, Anti-Vax, and 3D printed meat, which technically would allow for a vegan steak. Skeptical? Go check out the podcast. TSBS Episode 4: Kill it While it’s Still Helpless

(I hasten to point out that the story about the Neanderthal cloning isn’t real; that’s George Church, he isn’t doing that, but he was badly misquoted by a journalist. If you want to hear more about George Church, check this out.)

Photo Credit: Mark Drago via Compfight cc

More like this

I can say with absolute certainty that at least some crosswalk buttons really do something. In fact, two such are within sight of my home:

One Is a straightforward crosswalk with warning lights that are activated by the buttons. The other is a sensor-controlled traffic light that only give a green for north-south traffic if a car approaches the intersection or the button is pushed[1].

I also run into ones that don't cause the light to change any faster, but do cause an extended green so that you have enough time to cross a wider road[2].

[1] It's amusing to see the faces on people who don't know this when the east-west countdown hits 0 and turns back into a walk signal.

[2] If the button has not been pressed the signal will remain on don't walk when the light turns green.

By Rick Pikul (not verified) on 08 Feb 2013 #permalink

Interestingly enough, I had a similar experience in the elevators at my old university. The elevator in the tallest building on campus always seemed to be slow on shutting the doors and everyone would be standing around, either smashing the button on the panel continuously, rocking back and forth on their feet, and, my personal favorite, was the girl that closed her eyes and seemed to concentrate extremely hard until the doors closed, then a smile of accomplishment appeared on her face.
Halfway through the semester, I spoke to my psychology teacher about it. Chuckling, she said, "Shoot, I've got a ritual of my own in that elevator. Everyone does."

I have always found it interesting how we, as humans, interact with man-made things in so many different ways to get a sense of accomplishment in our day-to-day lives.

By James Thompson (not verified) on 10 Feb 2013 #permalink

I attend a large university and the elevator situation has happened to me many of times when I was living in a dorm. I would arrive to the doors and push the up button. Thankfully, the elevator was on the floor I was on. But once I got on the elevator, just me by myself, the doors didn't want to close. I waited in the elevator for a good 20 seconds with pushing the door close button and pressing the floor button I was going to. I believe these, as well as crosswalks and stop lights, are on a timer. I've heard around there is a 'sensor' underneath the white striped pavement on roads that alerts the stoplights that you are there waiting. I work at place that involves me crossing through an intersection. Every time I am stopped at the intersection, I see the pattern on which cars go first and how long they have to turn before their arrow turns red. I believe you can do all the jumping, blowing, and pushing you want, but the stop lights, elevators, and crosswalks have a mind of their own and will do as they please.

By Sarah Piper (not verified) on 11 Feb 2013 #permalink

Here in New Hampshire, crosswalk buttons generally do activate the pedestrian crossing cycle. Unfortunately, this cycle is usually for pedestrians crossing in all directions at once. Many pedestrians either don't realize this, or don't want to wait that long (understandably), so they cross with the green light in the direction they want to travel and leave all of the motorists stuck at the light when the pedestrian crossing cycle comes--including those who want to turn right, as state law prohibits right turns on red during the pedestrian crossing cycle.

Most traffic lights in this state are sensor-activated, as in Rick's example [1] above, but typically wait for a gap in traffic (or a maximum amount of time, whichever comes first) to change. That's fine if there are no other such signals within a few miles, but it drives me nuts in built-up areas--the perverse result is that once you stop at one red light, you are disproportionately likely to have to stop at the next light. If it were my goal to encourage speeding and tailgating, I could not design a better system. (Compare with cities where lights are timed so that once you get a green light you can drive across town at the speed limit without hitting a red light.)

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 11 Feb 2013 #permalink

Elevator door open and close buttons are for fire fighters and elevator repair technicians. You have the manual override key to make those buttons work. I have no idea about the crosswalk button. I assume that they are psychological/ornamental but don't work.

I have been in situations that involve both stoplights and elevators. When it comes to the topic of stoplights and crosswalk sensors I have to agree with Sarah from above. Red lights are all on a timer and change from red to green for different directions depending on the amount of traffic. Crosswalk buttons in my town do work, but only when the button is pressed. I have noticed that the pedestrians have to wait until the light that is currently green turns red. On the topic of elevators and the secret way of making the doors close faster, I believe that does not exist. The doors are on a timer, and every time the sensors between the doors are interrupted the timer starts over.

By Boone Kehrer (not verified) on 12 Feb 2013 #permalink