About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Friday, April 25, 2008

What elevators can teach us about superstition

Maybe I’ve had elevators on my mind because the one in our building has gone through endless repairs of late, none of which apparently improved its speed or reliability. Or perhaps you simply cannot live in New York City without taking into account elevators as a major component of your life. But then my wife pointed out to me this snippet from an article published recently in The New Yorker (every self-respecting newyorker reads The New Yorker while in the subway):

“In the old system—board elevator, press button—you have an illusion of control; elevator manufacturers have sought to trick the passengers into thinking they’re driving the conveyance. In most elevators, at least in any built or installed since the early nineties, the door-close button doesn’t work. It is there mainly to make you think it works. (It does work if, say, a fireman needs to take control. But you need a key, and a fire, to do that.) Once you know this, it can be illuminating to watch people compulsively press the door-close button. That the door eventually closes reinforces their belief in the button’s power. It’s a little like prayer. Elevator design is rooted in deception—to disguise not only the bare fact of the box hanging by ropes but also the tethering of tenants to a system over which they have no command.”

Talk about fooling most of the people most of the time! Of course, superstition is actually a well-known phenomenon in the animal world. Experiments with rats have shown that if you give them a reward (say, food), shortly after they accidentally bumped their shoulder against a wall of their cage, they will start purposely bumping against the wall, expecting a new reward. This is no different from human beings associating a win by their favorite team to them wearing a “lucky” shirt or hat. Both are examples of a widespread logical fallacy, post hoc ergo propter hoc (after that, therefore because of that), where a causal link between two events is inferred on the basis of an observed correlation. The difference between rats and humans is that the former give up their illogical behavior much sooner than the latter, if no further reward is coming. (Of course, what makes the elevator such a machiavellian device is that the reward does keep coming!)

More generally, superstition (and therefore religious belief, which is a form of superstition) can likely be traced back to two factors, one of which seems to apply only to humans (and perhaps other closely related primates). The first factor is exemplified in the widespread use of observational correlations in the animal kingdom: it simply makes sense for natural selection to favor the ability to uncover potentially significant patterns in the environment, so that the organism can take advantage of them. However, one would also expect selection to favor the quick abandonment of pattern-based behavior if the pattern turns out not to be a reliable clue for action -- exactly what happens with rats.

The second factor applies only to animals with a sufficient sense of self that they develop a need to be consciously in control of their lives: human beings first and foremost. This need for control is in fact so strong that we project agency onto the natural world and invent gods so that we can then pray to elicit favors from them. Or we keep pushing the elevator button even though it doesn’t do anything, smiling with a satisfied smugness once the doors finally do close -- even if they would have done so regardless of our pointless actions.


  1. Does anyone know why the close-door button has been disabled? What happens on elevators where the button does function?

  2. This topic is incomplete without a mention of B. F. Skinner's experiment, Superstition in the Pigeon.

  3. I've been in some elevators where the door close button works. In my current office, the doors take so long they don't even reinforce the illusion of working.

    I was surprised, however, that you did not mention the elevators at 7 World Trade Center. Next time you go to a lecture at the New York Academy of Sciences*, which I highly recommend if you don't already know about them, watch the way those elevators work.

    First, you punch in the floor you want rather than just an elevator call button. Then, the panel tells you which elevator will take you to your floor. You get in, no delusions, no floor buttons at all, and the elevator goes there. It's pretty cool actually.

    I imagine that it allows for the elevator software to batch people going to the same floor into the one elevator, resulting in fewer stops. At least, that's how I'd write the software.

    The doors in those elevators close too quickly to determine whether the door close buttons are functional.

    * New York Academy of Sciences web site: http://nyas.org

  4. Elevator, a machiavellian device.

    I love that. :-)

    Now, funny that rats (mice too, I'd suppose) are more rational than people. Maybe Douglas Adams was really on to something, heh...

  5. I definitely know a bunch of NYC elevators-both new and old-where the close button actually works :)

  6. While this may be an exceptional situation, I spent the weekend in an apartment building where most of the tenents are senior citizens. The elevator doors are programmed for a long delay before closing. The close door button interrupts the cycle and promptly starts closing the door.

  7. "to disguise not only the bare fact of the box hanging by ropes but also the tethering of tenants to a system over which they have no command.”

    Ropes! Ropes! I was under the delusion that they were steel cables! Yikes!

  8. It almost seems as though the Dumb Waiter is smarter than the passengers.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.