MUNDANE MYSTERIES: Do Elevator “Close Doors” Buttons Actually Work?

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If you’ve ever tried to close the doors of an elevator before they did it themselves, you’ve probably wondered, “Does that button really do anything at all?” Well, the simple answer is…disappointing. Most door-close buttons in U.S. elevators do not work. They’re actually programmed to not work. But…why?

When the Americans With Disabilities Act was passed in 1990, elevators were required to have things like raised buttons, braille signs, and audible signals, plus it was also mandated that the elevator doors remain fully open for at least 3 seconds to ensure someone with a disability would have enough time to get inside (and, logically, the “Close Door” button would cut that time short). Some elevator makers took things one step further, though, and just deactivated the button altogether. So, with the average life span of an elevator is around 25 years, and the Disabilities Act having been around for 28 years, it’s a safe bet that most operational elevators today don’t have functioning “Close Door” buttons. Only firefighters are able to close elevator doors manually through the use of a special key.

There are exceptions to the rule, though. In New York City, elevators are required by law to have working “Close Door” buttons, though many have such a long delay that the button’s basically useless. Or, if you’re in Great Britain & you take a “lift” (as they’re called in the UK), “Close Door” buttons there are fully functional. Not all elevators have the button, though, but when they do, they work (though the time it takes the doors to shut after pressing the button varies lift to lift).

So, why would they install a useless button in the first place? “Placebo Buttons”, as they’re called, are actually psychologically important to elevator riders. The thought is that believing you’re in control makes you feel better about the claustrophobic elevator experience. But, it’s not just elevators: city crosswalks buttons are often disabled, and thermostats in many office buildings are rigged so temperatures can’t be altered (even though the numbers might appear to change). So, even if you were to swear up & down that elevator “Close Door” buttons really do work, it’s just your brain deceiving you. The doors are going to close anyway eventually, so those buttons are merely there to help alleviate some of your subconscious anxiety about riding in a tiny metal box up a cable for sometimes 25, 50, even 100 floors.

So now you know: the next time you’re running late to work, you can take comfort knowing that even those few extra seconds you might’ve saved pressing a functioning ‘close door’ button aren’t really worth all that much in the long run.

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