changing traffic lights by the force of your personality

From: Damien Broderick (
Date: Thu Feb 07 2002 - 20:36:43 MST

At 07:43 PM 2/7/02 -0700, chesh wrote:

>I bitch about running into constant red lights, do a bit
>of mental acrobatics, and note that every (or very nearly, nothing's
perfect) traffic light is
>green for the rest of the day. Sometimes this has lasted a few days or a
week; depending
>on my general state of mind.

Since this is the Extropian List and not the Deluded Magical Thinking List,
probably most readers will have blipped over this post with a sigh. But
since it's such a classic but truly dopey New Age claim that people can
change traffic lights by wishing, it might be interesting to prod it a bit.

How would the world have to be for this to work? More exactly, how would
traffic light systems have to be?

(We could do a different kind of analysis and ask how it's possible, if
such an effect really occurs, for lights *ever* to change to allow
cross-highway traffic through. Obviously there are always many more people
wishing for the busy stream to have green lights all the way through, and
their magickal wishes should sum to keep the light always switched their
way. But that might not be how magick works; perhaps there's a cosmic bean
counter that maintains a certain even-handedness in the world.)

No, what I'm asking--as I do when my sweet, endlessly gullible
sister-in-law tells me of her inner power over traffic lights--is: how is
the mechanism of traffic lights vulnerable to this magickal power?

Isn't there usually a hardware timer inside the things that switches from
red to green and back at pre-set intervals? (Leave aside manually-tweaked
systems where an operator views a bunch of intersections on screen and
routes around accidents, smooths the flow, etc.)

I don't know the answer, but I assume most traffic lights are just not the
kinds of mechanisms that can be influenced from the outside, except by
pressing a button on the street corner. But of course a *huge* proportion
of pedestrians act is if they believe traffic lights can be coerced or
propitiated by hitting the button repeatedly. That might not be magical
thinking, though, just displaced frustration. I found a woman at a busy
intersection the other day hammering repeatedly at the button, and asked
her politely why she was doing it. `Because I'm frustrated,' she said with
a grin. `Yes, but you don't actually think that it affects the--?' `No, but
it makes me feel better.' `Okay.' It also wears out the mechanism more
rapidly, I suppose. But I suspect that she was smarter than many people; I
really think that many people believe that if you slam the button ten or 20
times the lights will change more quickly.

Any traffic light experts on the list?

Damien Broderick

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