The Common Placebo

A Look At Things That Give Us The Illusion Of Control

This week's commentary by 60 Minutes columnist Steve Hartman originally aired on March 31, 2004.
I have long been suspicious of office thermostats. I mean if they really work, then why are people always begging for space heaters or taking matters into their own fans?

I believe the sole purpose of the office thermostat is to give us the illusion of control.

It's the same principle behind the buttons on "walk" signs at intersections. Let's face it, the ability to part traffic may appeal to your inner Moses – but those lights are not at your commandment.

Certainly not in New York, where city officials now admit the vast majority of these buttons don't work. But what's really interesting is that we don't mind.

Other common placebos that pacify us include the cell phone antenna, the Department of Homeland Security, and, of course, the elevator "close door" button. That's the button you wish worked whenever somebody tells you hold the elevator.

Anyway, I was all ready to make the point that we should just eliminate all these placebos, when in walked Andy Rooney.

"How hard would it be to program an elevator so that two of them didn't end up on the same floor at the same time?" asks Rooney.

Over the course of next three floors, Rooney came up with at least half a dozen witty observations on the micro-topic of elevators alone.

"It must cost money for three elevators to come to the lobby at the same time," says Rooney.

And with his last observation, he ambled off -- leaving no doubt as to who is the genuine article in this business, and who is the placebo.
  • Rebecca Leung

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