On February 11 2023, a Reddit account on r/todayilearned resurrected a long-running rumor when they claimed that 80 percent of elevator “close door” buttons were not functional 80 percent of the time:
Users of Reddit’s r/todayilearned (often abbreviated “TIL“) frequently link to Wikipedia articles when presenting a topic, as was the case with a recent submission about “earthquake diplomacy.” Content shared to the subreddit (or in formats similar to it) often highlight information that is unexpected, suppressed, or otherwise compelling as a “fun fact.”
Google Trends data measured a small spike in interest involving searches for “do elevator close buttons work” in the seven-day period ending February 13 2023. On the appended Reddit thread, the most upvoted comments discussed whether the claim (if true) was universally accurate:
“Interestingly, this is [as far as I know] only true in the US.”
“Close buttons do work in Japan.”
“I freaking loved this when I was in Japan. You hit that close button, those bitches were closing, period. You had to be careful to make sure that no one else was coming or you might sandwich someone … But it meant that if you were getting on an elevator in an empty area, you could just walk in, hit close, and immediately start moving.”
“Canada too; there’s an elevator I use several times a week and that bad boy doesn’t even wait til the button depresses before shutting it down. It’s glorious[.]”
The post itself atypically linked to audio — a December 2014 segment (“Buttons Not Buttons”) from Radiolab, a WNYC program which “focuses on topics of a scientific, philosophical, and political nature.” A brief description read:
Buttons are usually small and unimportant. But not always. Sometimes they are a portal to power, freedom, and destruction. Today we thread together tales of taking charge of the little things in life, of fortunes made and lost, and of the ease with which the world can end.
Confused? Push the button marked Play.
We were unable to locate a transcript of the episode, but a podcast-centric blog published a post about the segment in January 2015. It explained that the half-hour episode featured three “acts,” one of which was about elevator buttons specifically:
On this episode of RadioLab, three very different “button” themed stories are presented.
ACT ONE – 00:00 – 07:19
In the first tale, reporter Latif Nasser decides to go to the Elevator History Museum in New York City, where he meets Patrick Carr, curator of the museum. Carr has a secret he can’t wait to share with Nasser: 80% of “close door” buttons on elevators are not hooked up. This is because elevators are very smart, and know the traffic of incoming passengers at various times of day.
“All you’re doing is screwing up the elevator’s timing by touching that thing.” – Patrick Carr
This story shows that although buttons make life easier in some situations, in others they are useless. When I push the “close door” button on elevators, I expect the machine to do what I want. I’m sure this button works in areas with low traffic, but in office buildings where it is used frequently, users are powerless. All the button does is give people a meaningless amount of power.
RadioLab’s segment aired in late 2014; on October 27 2016, the New York Times published an article on the same topic. It reported that “some buttons we regularly rely on to get results are mere artifices — placebos that promote an illusion of control but that in reality do not work,” leading into a section labeled “Door-close buttons on elevators”:
Pressing the door-close button on an elevator might make you feel better, but it will do nothing to hasten your trip.
Karen W. Penafiel, executive director of National Elevator Industry Inc., a trade group, said the close-door feature faded into obsolescence a few years after the enactment of the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990.
The legislation required that elevator doors remain open long enough for anyone who uses crutches, a cane or wheelchair to get on board, Ms. Penafiel said in an interview [in October 2016]. “The riding public would not be able to make those doors close any faster,” she said.
No figures were available for the number of elevators still in operation with functioning door-close buttons. Given that the estimated useful life of an elevator is 25 years, it is likely that most elevators in service today have been modernized or refurbished, rendering the door-close buttons a thing of the past for riders, Ms. Penafiel said.
Take heart, though: The door-open buttons do work when you press them.
In that context, the story included information about the functionality of elevator “door close” buttons — citing the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) as the origin of non-functioning buttons. The outlet stated that there was no information about how many pre-1990 elevators remained in service, but noted that 2016 was a little more than 25 years after the ADA’s enactment.
According to a 2008 article in the New Yorker, close buttons don’t close the elevator doors in many elevators built in the United States since the 1990s. In some elevators the button is there for workers and emergency personnel to use, and it only works with a key. The key-only settings isn’t always active though, as the blog Design with Intent asserts. Each elevator is different. In some, the emergency function requires a long-press of several seconds longer than the average user attempts. The website, The Straight Dope, investigated the issue in 1986 by asking elevator companies and elevator repairmen directly. According to their investigation, “The grim truth is that a significant percentage of the close-door buttons in this world…don’t do anything at all.” The reasons cited were that the button was never wired up, or that it was set to a delay, or was deactivated by the owner, or it broke long ago and no one ever complained because the doors eventually close whether or not you press the buttons.
If you happen to find yourself pressing a non-functional close-door button, and later the doors close, you’ll probably never notice because a little spurt of happiness will cascade through your brain once you see what you believe is a response to your action. Your behavior was just reinforced. You will keep pressing the button in the future.
Non-functioning mechanisms like this that motivate you to fool yourself are called placebo buttons, and they’re everywhere.
In March 2018, KGO-TV revisited the issue, also quoting Karen Penafiel of the National Elevator Industry Inc. In that reporting, Penafiel disputed the “placebo button” phrasing:
Karen Penafiel is the executive director of the trade association National Elevator Industry Inc. Here’s what she told me: “People think it is merely a placebo button and it’s not.”
Penafiel says the buttons’ function changed in 1990 when the Americans with Disability Act instituted rules giving those with mobility issues more time to get onto the elevator.
“The code requirements are very complex,” she says, adding the rules include, “how far the elevator doors are positioned from the call button.”
The longer the distance between button and door, the longer the door must remain open before allowing the “close door” button to work.
After the October 2016 New York Times “placebo buttons” piece appeared, Canadian site GlobalNews.ca published “Reality check: Does hitting the ‘close’ button on an elevator make the door close faster?” As Reddit commenters claimed, the baseline claim was not consistently accurate:
Similarly, hitting the “close door” button on an American elevator usually won’t have any effect.
But if you’re impatient, it’s good to be Canadian.
It turns out that most Canadian crosswalk and elevator buttons actually work.
According to Wilson Lee, spokesperson for the Technical Standards and Safety Authority, which inspects and licenses Ontario elevators, hitting the “close door” button does just that: closes the door.
A June 2018 MentalFloss.com item noted that UK elevators (or “lifts”) have working “close door” buttons:
It’s important to note that there are exceptions to this rule, though. As the New York Daily News noted, New York City elevators are required by law to have working ‘close door’ buttons, even though some operate on a long delay (so long, in fact, that it calls the button’s usefulness into question).
However, you’re in luck if you’re taking a lift (which, of course, is British for “elevator”). ‘Close door’ buttons are fully functional in most elevators in the UK, according to The Telegraph. A spokesman for the Lift and Escalator Industry Association told the newspaper that not all elevators have the button, but when they’re present, they do work. Again, the time it takes for the doors to shut after pressing the button varies from lift to lift.
Oddly, another prominent search result led to “edit warring” on the “Talk” page of Wikipedia’s “Placebo buttons” entry. In September 2009, two self-identified elevator company employees chimed in to dispute the claims (as did a third in 2013):
I formerly worked at an elevator company. At least in the US, ADA (American Disabilities Act) sets minimum door open times, so pushing the Close Door button in Normal operation does nothing. The Close Door button is used mostly for Inspection Operation by an elevator mechanic and for Fire Service. In older installations pre-ADA the Close Door button may do something. […] 12:26, 3 September 2009 (UTC)
I actually work on elevators, I am a licensed elevator mechanic in California. The door close button DOES WORK, despite this person’s claims. Even on new elevators, there is a timer on the door open cycle, it starts the timer once the door open limit has been reached. The door open timer will remain active for a time specified by the relay or computer control. The door open timer can be shut off or shortened by the activation of the door close button. Again, this article is WRONG pertaining to elevators because they clearly have no experience working with elevators, as while as the previous comment. By the way sir, inspection operation disables the doors altogether, so the door buttons have no use in inspection operation. For more information on how elevators work, see the elevator article 18.104.22.168 (talk) 04:13, 4 September 2009 (UTC)
Can we DELETE the elevator button off this article [on placebo buttons]? The DOOR close button does work, even when its in normal operation. Who writes this BS? I’ve been an elevator mechanic for over ten years and I can guarantee you that the door close button DOES work in normal operation. It shortens door dwell time making the doors close sooner. Remove this BS already, the reason there is no citation is because its bullcrap. Please feel free to ask any elevator manufacturer if their door close button works or not, they will all tell you the same thing I just stated. […] 00:23, 23 May 2013 (UTC)
A popular February 2023 post to Reddit’s r/todayilearned claimed that 80 percent of elevator “close door” buttons do not work, and that they existed as “placebo buttons” to placate elevator riders. The claim is Decontextualized at best; a 2016 New York Times piece about “placebo buttons” had a section about the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act and its provisions around the “close door” button. Responses to the article indicated that the claim largely had to do with American elevators. One expert quoted in that 2016 article later objected to the “placebo buttons” claim, and explained that the functionality existed with a “delay.”