According to this post on Motherboard, buttons are useless. So why do we still push them? For the same reason that we lean in order to encourage a bowling ball to go in the right direction even after it has left our hand. And for the same reason that, when we return home from walks, my dog barks when I take out my keys. These are all technically “superstitious” behaviors.
Professor Michael Britt does a great job of explaining this phenomenon in this episode of his series, The Psych Files. Superstitious behaviors occur because of coincidental pairings of events. Even when you’re aware of the probable lack of connection between an event and its antecedent, it’s hard to shake a habit. At some point somewhere, a mother’s back broke because their child stepped on a crack. The causality of these two occurrences would be hard to prove. But don’t worry Mom: I’m still playing it safe.
You have probably pushed a “close door” button or a crosswalk button, and you were rewarded with the door shutting or the crosswalk light changing. Even if the buttons were just placeboes, you’d still probably push them–in fact, you’d probably push with more and more vigor. Behaviors tend to get stronger and more intense when we are put on a schedule of variable reinforcement; we gain vigor as we try to figure out the secret to getting that jackpot. It’s what keeps us at slot machines. When your Metrocard doesn’t work after the first swipe, you don’t give up and decide to walk. You swipe more and more, hoping you’ll hit that sweet spot that will make the turnstile go. Same things. Humans. Sigh. We’re so darn predictable.
So, you push the button because, whether or not it was a coincidence, at some point it coincided with the door closing. I lean with the bowling ball because once in some halcyon time, my lean coincided with the ball moving in the direction I wanted. (There were probably bumpers involved). It doesn’t work, but something in me is convinced that if I juuuust lean at the preciiiiise angle…
And Amos barks because his notion of causality is totally messed up. At some point, he must’ve barked when I took out the keys, and then the door opened. He mistakenly thinks that his bark is what causes the door to open, not the whole key-in-lock-pushing-door process.
But he’s totally fine about crossing paths with a black cat.