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Is technology just pushing our buttons?

Reports of placebo buttons abound but Oklahoma City seems to be staying away from placebo buttons.
by Heather Warlick Modified: October 3, 2013 at 10:00 pm •  Published: October 2, 2013

Several Oklahoma City commercial climate control companies said they'd never installed a dummy thermostat and, in fact, had never received a request to do so.

“In a business like ours it would be misleading. We're not in the business to trick people,” said Jeremy Miner, a service technician at Advanced Air Specialist.

But it wouldn't be hard to do, he said, and some large companies that have their own climate control specialists might be installing dummy thermostats or regulating the allowable variances in temperature.

And, if you read the instruction manual, Miner said you could set your home or commercial thermostats to operate within a four-degree range for energy-saving reasons.

The Air Conditioning, Heating & Refrigeration report included a quip about an employee who always complained of being hot.

“Our solution was to install a pneumatic thermostat. We ran the main air line to it inside of an enclosed I-beam. Then we just attached a short piece of tubing to the branch outlet (terminating inside the I-beam without being attached to any valves, etc.),” said Greg Perakes, a heating, ventilation, air conditioning and refrigeration instructor in Tennessee. That's jargon for saying the company installed a noisemaker that sounded like the hiss of air coming from the air conditioner vent.

“When she heard the hissing air coming from inside the I-beam, she felt in control. We never heard another word about the situation from her again. Case solved.”

It's all about the natural human condition of wanting to be in control of our surroundings and time management.

Feeling in control?

Steve Souders, Google's head performance engineer, recently gave a speech about how illusions of speed can be more important to the user experience than actual speed itself, especially when related to the ever-speedier Internet. Nobody wants to wait for a slow Web page to load.

In his speech at the O'Reilly Velocity conference, he said his favorite example of the placebo button effect is on his wife's Fiat 500. The car has half the horsepower of a Ford Fiesta but it features a “sport” button, perhaps to be used if you're drag racing a Fiesta.

Another example of the placebo effect of saving time occurred at the Houston Airport. Passengers were upset about walking one minute to the baggage claim carousel, then having to wait six minutes for their bags. To solve the problem, the airport simply increased the length of walking time to the baggage claim to six minutes, thereby fooling the passengers into thinking they're saving time when they only have a one-minute wait for their bags.

“People weren't standing there bored, staring at nothing,” Souders said. Install mirrors in elevators for the same effect.

So, though the technology used for crosswalks, elevators and heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems vary from place to place, keep on pressing those buttons, if for no other reason that the short-lived boost of satisfaction you'll receive. And, if you're lucky, the button will lead to its intended action.

by Heather Warlick
Life & Style Editor
Since graduating from University of Central Oklahoma with a Bachelor's Degree in Journalism, Staff Writer Heather Warlick has written stories for The Oklahoman's Life section. Her beats have included science, health, home and garden, family,...
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