Written by Hayle Chen. 
Graphic by Quynhmai Tran.

For Allison, who told me I could absolutely write on a topic that I had never pitched to her before—you brought the best kind of control to this chaotic world.

“To be in hell is to drift; to be in heaven is to steer.” 

When addressing the fervent lust for control that we humans desire to possess, Irish playwright, George Bernard Shaw, said it best.

From the meticulous ways by which we govern nations through prescribed law to the individual plans we often neurotically etch out regarding our futures, there exists an innate desire to master the disordered state of the universe through the sheer force of our own wills. Caught in a society so divisive and partisan that its trappings seem to force us into unmitigated chaos, the human need to take command—to be in charge of even the most minute of occurrences—often takes hold. 

As a result, acknowledging this constant desire to escape the perpetual discord of human life, it’s no surprise that there exist exceptionally peculiar manners in which our own minds unwillingly decide to enact this semblance of control for us. Thus, the emergence of the placebo effect.

A concept as ancient as medicine itself and widely practiced throughout the ages, the concept of a placebo rests in its status as a psychological phenomenon—one allowing entirely nonfunctional drugs, medicines, or therapy to produce positive effects as a result of a patient’s belief in its functionality. This baffling concept, one in which the mind holds incredible power in determining efficacy, is a scientific wonder that produces a desired effect whether one is aware of its presence or not. Vastly used in clinical trials and ordinarily known through the lens of psychology and medicine, it’s remarkable (yet also entirely predictable) to discover that there are placebos that exist in our own chaotically commonplace lives.

Enter stage left: the buttons we press that have no use at all. The first candidate? The “close door” button we all know and love.

Altering your perception on the mundane aspects of life (because can anything truly ever remain sacred?), the existence of the “close-door” button paints an astounding portrait of how collectively neurotic humans truly are.

Think of the last time you were in an elevator, rushing to a destination that made you want and need to close the door just a little bit faster—what did you do? A natural instinct for many, it’d be safe to assume that your fingers hurriedly found the “close-door” button, pushing it as if your very existence depended on the action. But there lies a harrowing secret: aggressively pushing that baby won’t help you get to your destination any faster or aid in your need to avoid that one girl you have beef with that lives in your building. Because the godforsaken button is a placebo that hasn’t been an actually functioning product since the 1990s

With the passing of the American With Disabilities Act, which stipulated that elevator doors remain open for a particular amount of time so that disabled persons could enter, so too came the lack of efficacy in our manic pushing of the button. Though there still remains some rare functioning ones out there, the sheer need to believe we’re in control has precipitated the creation of something that only exists to sate our own distraught minds. 

And now cognizant of the peculiarities of human psychology, you’ll be chagrined to know that the New York Times also reports that the majority of those trusty little crosswalk buttons we often press to cross the street have been deactivated for quite awhile—in New York and beyond. Thus, it seems as if the whole of society really is indeed a lie.

In this vein, if it’s control that we so desperately desire, why do we mass manufacture products that are entirely inoperative? Why do we continue to place our sanity into the hands of a few rarely maintained buttons and machines? The obvious answer: the need for even a semblance of constancy in an ever-shifting world.

And perhaps these buttons—inoperable or not—really do tap into our intrinsically fragile psyche, placing us at the helm and steering us into the control we relentlessly crave. Or perhaps we’re all actually collectively drifting in a hell—destined to succumb to the unrelenting chaos that is the lack of control enacted by the two-timing, double-crossing appliances we’ve trusted all our lives. It’s up to you to decide—after all, aren’t you the one in control?

One response to “Placebos, Chaos, and the Semblance of Control”

  1. Emily Lara Avatar
    Emily Lara

    I’ve never thought about how placebos actions work until now.


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