"Security Theater" and the Placebo Effect


Do contemporary measures in the name of health and safety do more for our minds than our bodies?

“Employees must wash hands before returning to work,” a sign as ubiquitous as traffic lights and discarded Starbucks cups, is required by law in many states. According to one compliance signage vendor, signs are “the best method to continually remind employees of specific workplace policies or safety precautions that should be taken in their daily job duties.” As a wall fixture seen day in and day out, these signs may eventually lose their potency on employees. According to a 2006 CDC study on Food Worker Handwashing Practices, “during specific work activities for which handwashing is recommended” employees washed their hands only 32% of the time. In fact, according to a study commissioned by Delta Faucet, 1 in 5 people do not wash their hands after using the bathroom. That’s 20% of the population. And it includes food workers. 

These signs could very well serve another purpose, however – a gentle security blanket for visiting patrons. One blogger writes: “Sometimes I wonder if there are people who see this sign and then go back to their table feeling much safer about eating their food.” As if such a sign could magically ameliorate all concerns of hygiene and sanitation – I will not get food poisoning, my line cook washed his hands. Who knows if employees actually wash their hands after going to the restroom (there’s a decent likelihood they did not), or that even if they do, it means the kitchen is salmonella- and vermin- free. In fact, the two may very well be mutually-exclusive given the number of B and C grades adorning the windows of New York City’s cafes and restaurants. 

 In a recent New York Times article, “The Mystery of the Flying Laptop,” Matt Richtel explores the TSA distinctions between laptops and tablets attempting to understand why travelers must remove their laptops for individual screening, but not their other devices. Debunking the common assumptions about removable batteries, thickness, and screen size, he pokes holes in the logic flow and justification of many a security expert before talking to an unnamed source who claims: “the laptop rule is about appearances, giving people a sense that something is being done to protect them. ‘Security theater,’ he called it.”

Just how strong of an effect does the idea of safety have on us? Perhaps there’s a parallel in medicine. The April 2012 Harvard Health Letter articulates: “the placebo effect is… a favorable response to a medical intervention — a pill, a procedure, a counseling session, you name it — that doesn't have a direct physiological effect.” Part of this “favorable response” is a result of “changes in brain chemistry” due to genuine belief in and expectation of treatment. An analysis of recent research has led to a newfound appreciation for the effectiveness of placebo therapies: “the placebo effect may be an integral part of good medical care and an ally that should be embraced by doctors and patients alike.” It goes without saying: the brain is powerful stuff. 

Are dummy security cameras the equivalent of sugar pills? Are weaponless mall cops more psychologically than physically effective? Have you ever encountered a Purell station outside of a hospital that actually works? Medicine has recognized the legitimacy of placebo therapies, and it’s likely that OSHA, TSA, and myriad other health and safety organizations have followed suit. Evidence suggests that many safety measures do more for our peace of mind than anything else, but as many others have pointed out before, that may be just the point.

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