When it comes to curiosity, there are generally two main types. The first type is patient enough to wait for an explanation to be given, usually by an expert on a subject and/or its creator. Someone who can break it down into a more simplified language, to a point where it can be easily understood, what its benefits are, what dangers it may impose, and the like. The second type, well...doesn't have that kind of patience. Or insight. Or anything resembling restraint. They're willing to stumble blindly towards a control panel and start randomly pressing buttons. Usually they'll ask the all important question, "What Does This Button Do?" just before doing so. Or just after doing so, if the work emphasizes them being unthinking rather than reckless.
This is the kind of thing that can result in self-destruct sequences being set off, Wave Motion Guns made to be even more dangerous without anyone who knows what they're doing to run them, all while someone with half a brain will scream warnings (and insults to their intelligence) just before things get wrecked.
A very bad way to tempt fate. The proper response to anyone who asks this question is, "Don't touch it, you idiot!" Note, however, that big red buttons are usually a Chekhov's Gun: even in the event that a curious character is prevented from pushing it, rest assured that you'll eventually find out what the button does.
Beware! Dangerously Genre Savvy villains may leave them lying out in the open as Schmuck Bait...
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The Metro ad Dumb Ways To Die has a character die saying "I wonder what this red button'll do".
An ad for Cable One in which a supervillian has his plans to destroy Earth from his outer-space lair spoiled by a slow Internet connection has 'Common Sense' say the trope name and push the self-destruct button.
Anime & Manga
Tomo from Azumanga Daioh once found a button that would kill Chiyo when pressed. She pressed it anyway. It was only in a dream, though (not that it alleviated Chiyo's anxieties about Tomo, anyway).
Mazinger Z: This series mixed this trope with with Falling into the Cockpit, and deconstructed both of them (funny and ironic, keeping in mind that Mazinger Zwas the first mecha show where the pilot fell into the cockpit). When The Hero Kouji sat in the Hover Pilder (the flying device that controls the Super Robot) for first time, he knew absolutely nothing about piloting. His little brother suggested to him that maybe it was a really bad idea, and he angrily replied he only needed to figure out what each button did. So what he began pressing random buttons to ascertain which did what... and he nearly got himself and his brother killed. Mazinger-Z went on a rampage, destroying everything on its path, and it only stopped when Sayaka showed up and carefully explained to Kouji what he had to do (after getting baffled at the thought of someone doing something SO stupid). And it was way worse in the original manga version, since Kouji activated Mazinger-Z in the middle of a big city. To be fair, though, the person who had built Mazinger-Z was dead, so it was not like if Kouji could consult someone about it at the time.
Asked in Episode 15 of Bodacious Space Pirates when Marika brings the yacht club aboard the Bentenmaru to fill in for her quarantined crew. Answer: It fires the ship's main cannons.
In One Piece, Franky goes searching through the laboratory of the world's most brilliant scientist for a ship that can take him to the rest of the Straw Hats. He comes across a "Pirate button", and...
The world refers to this incident as the Future Kingdom's great disaster: "The Nightmare of Baldimore".
In Watchmen Laurie was exploring Nite Owl's aircraft and started pressing buttons on the panel. She pressed one and it turned off the lights. Then, she tapped another button with the fire marked on it for the cigarette lighter. It's not a cigarette lighter. After the fire was put out and Dan mentioned the air-to-air missiles, Laurie announced that she had just quit smoking forever. In a nice bit of Fore Shadowing, Dan mentions that The Comedian did the same thing back 1977...
In the film version, she doesn't smoke, but still pushes the button just to see what it does.
Teen Titans; Tim Drake manages to smuggle a batmobile to California under the 'batarang budget' and tells the group not to touch the blue button after being asked that question. A page later reveals it most likely contacts Batman, right after Kid Flash has managed to crash the car upside down.
Gune: Does this look familiar? Do you know what it is? Neither do I. I made it last night in my sleep. Apparently I used Gindrogac. Highly unstable. I put at button on it. Yes. I wish to press it, but I'm not sure what will happen if I do. (We never do find out what it does.)
Rex in Toy Story asks this while pointing to a big red button on Buzz Lightyear's armor. Subverted in that it just plays a voice recording. In the same scene, there's also a bit in which one of the toys activates Buzz's laser, though without the line.
In Yellow Submarine, Ringo presses a button just after he's told not to do so. It is a panic button/ejector seat that puts him in the Sea of Monsters... (Ringo Starr himself said children all over the world asked him "why did you push the button?")
In ''Wreck-It Ralph", as Ralph is trying to figure out how Vanellope's racecar works, Vanellope asks, "What does this joystick do?", pulls it, and reverses, smacking Ralph in the face. She does this two more times.
Films — Live-Action
In the 1983 film WarGames, this concept is spoofed, when a tourist at NORAD is tricked by a military tour guide into pushing a big red button that simulates an emergency response, for comedic effect.
Will Smith's character in Men In Black is firmly instructed early in the movie to never, ever touch the red button. In the crisis of the climax scene, Tommy Lee Jones tells him to push it. It activates turbo engines that allow the car to drive on walls and ceilings to get through a traffic-clogged tunnel.
In The Fifth Element, the Big Bad promises his Swiss Army Weapons to the alien mercenaries in exchange for the MacGuffin he seeks. The container turns out to be empty; he gives them one weapon crate anyway for trying, but one discovers a little red button on the gun whose purpose Zorg didn't explain. That was his insurance in case he got ripped off. The alien presses it, which causes the gun to self-destruct, killing them all.
Zorg: Now a real killer, when he picked up the ZF-1, would've immediately asked about the little red button on the bottom of the gun.
Earlier Korben fools a not-very-smart mugger into deactivating his weapon, telling him it won't fire unless he presses the yellow button.
In Undercover Brother, Conspiracy Brother sees a Big Red Button in the control room of The Man's base labelled "Atomic Core". He goes ahead and presses it anyway, starting the self destruct sequence.
Subverted in the 1971 Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, at the very end, in the Great Glass Wonkavator, Wonka lets him know that he has pushed every button in the compartment besides one with a red ring around it, which he encourages Charlie to do, claiming he doesn't know what'll happen, eventually revealing he actually knew it would lead them up and out of the factory.
Lampshaded by the joke, "Do you know what the last thing they said on the Challenger space shuttle before it blew up? Gee, what does this button do?"
Wizards will always pull anything marked "Do Not Pull" just to see what all the fuss is about, and if you put a sign saying "End of the World Switch" on a lever in a remote cave somewhere, the paint wouldn't even have time to dry.
Soul Music: The shop full of magical musical instruments, where the question was "What happens if I pick up this instrument and play it?" One of the scarier ones in the shop was the horn of either Heimdall or Gabriel.
Hogfather: The wizards find a nailed-shut door in Unseen University, and naturally have Modo the handyman un-nail it. After Ridcully has explored the full capabilities of the B. S. Johnson bathroom behind the door, he has Modo nail it up again; but Modo leaves the nail-heads sticking out a little to make it easier next time the Gentlemen want it opened.
Alk and Ilke's adventure starts out like this in Phenomena, where Ilke can't help it but to grab some handles.
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy plays this trope straight, while subverting the Shmuck Bait element and averting the Chekhov's Gun of it: "[Arthur] reached out and pressed an invitingly large button on a nearby panel. The panel lit up with the words 'Please do not press this button again.'" At no point is this button ever mentioned again.
One character in Finder's Stone trilogy thought the best way to learn what unknown magical devices do is to tell them all known stock command words and look what will happen.
"Nonsense," Olive said with a sniff. "There's no danger as long as you know the right way to deal with these things. All you have to do is hold your hand over your head—" the halfling demonstrated, while Akabar stepped backward and Alias rose to her feet "—and command the ring, 'Show your power to me.' If that doesn't work then there are certain key words you should—" They never heard the rest of the bard's lecture. Suddenly the ring's power did indeed display itself.
''Make your choice, adventurous stranger Strike the bell and bide the danger Or wonder 'till it drives you mad What would have happened if you had
In Artemis FowlThe Atlantis Complex Mulch amuses himself on a long trip in a stolen shuttle by doing this repeatedly, activating the emergency braking system and dumping a load of "waste" on some very surprised fishermen.
"I should have guessed that one. There's a little picture of a toilet on the button."
The Illustrated Star Wars Universe has an image of an Ewok examining a blaster, with the caption saying that Ewoks are curious about Imperial technology, often to their own detriment.
At the end of her first adventure, Leela invited herself into the TARDIS, and it dematerialized as the Doctor said "Don't touch that button!" (i.e. the dematerialization button). The only consequence was that she became the Doctor's new companion.
The fourth Doctor's companion, Harry Sullivan, had a bad habit of pushing buttons to see what would happen. He got over it after about the third time he nearly killed Sarah.
When the Tenth Doctor is first introduced, he parodies this Trope when he finds a big red button whilst exploring his new personality and dubs it "The Great Big Threatening Button Which Should Never Be Pressed Under Any Circumstances" and presses it, resulting in the freedom, as opposed to the deaths, of one-third of the humans on Earth.
Amy learns this from him. When she was stuck on an alien spaceship, she and two others finds a console she tells the others, "Well, I've spent enough time with the Doctor to know whenever you enter somewhere new, press buttons."
In the Star Trek: The Original Series episode "The City on the Edge of Forever", McCoy, under the influence of cordrazine, passes out in the street of a Depression-era city. A tramp picks up his phaser, curious, and hits a button or two. Oops.
McKay in Stargate Atlantis claims the rights to this trope in "Sunday" and berates two other scientists for using it, since he has the ability to fix whatever he might screw up, while they will usually turn to him for the same. Doesn't always turn out that way, but did in this episode.
Likewise, in Stargate SG-1 Dr. Jackson explains that him fiddling with alien control panels is acceptable whereas Colonel Mitchell doing the same is stupid because "I know how to read 'that'."
On Top Gear, James May built a limousine from an Alfa Romeo and a Saab, creating a two-headed Frankenvehicle. Richard Hammond couldn't resist pulling a lever on the Alfa side... which uncoupled the steering and left the "Alfaab" fishtailing wildly while Jeremy Clarkson tried to regain control.
Lampshaded in the Father Ted episode "Flight into Terror". We're explicitly told that the Big Red Button dumps all the fuel, but for some reason it's placed next to another Big Red Button, which is to be pressed when the plane is in trouble (in this case, an old priest in the cockpit going a bit mad and molesting the pilot). When the pilot asks Dougal to press the button...
One episode of Married... with Children revolved around Al and the rest of No Ma'am trying to figure out what a button in the Bundys' kitchen did. The button itself was harmless enough* it controlled the light in Buck's doghouse; Al's electrician skills, less so.
In one of the episodes, Fargo finds a strange device and, naturally, turns it on. It turns out to be a force-field generator, whose field is constantly increases in size, threatening to destroy Eureka. When Carter finds out that someone gave the device to Fargo, he berates that person, who claims he didn't think that Fargo would activate it. Carter looks at him incredulously and points out that it's Fargo they're talking about.
Connor: What does this button d— Lester:Please don't touch anything. I don't want you changing my settings. Connor: ...Sorry.
Detective Beckett often laments that Castle is prone to this. Hilarity Ensues in one episode when his curiosity results in him believing he has been cursed by a Mayan mummy!
In the pilot episode of Special Unit 2, Benson is patting down O'Malley and takes out his strange-looking gun. He tries to warn her about the infrared hairline trigger, but too late. She ends up blowing up a car with a single shot.
Pretty much the set up for every plot in Aquila as the boys press buttons on the titular craft with no idea of what will happen. There was once a whole episode focused around Jeff wanting to try out all the buttons just to see what happens... generally something odd.
At the end of Laszlo & Gary's "Don't Touch That", a recording engineer begs him not to touch a big red button on the control panel even though he's curious about what it does; he touches the button and the song ends with a loud explosion.
The intro to "Doomsday" by Mephiskapheles has an idiot saying: "Ayayayayayay! Ay, what's this button for?"
The red button at a multi-site site, run by Sprint, that says "push now". The old version of the site opened with a USB device plugging into a computer. It does nothing, and nearly 300,000 people have fallen for it. However, now that the site redirects to this new version, over 120,100 people have fallen for the one there.
In the New World of Darkness's fanmade expansion Genius: The Transgression, this is represented with the Mere Mortal Law (AKA Gilligan's Rule), or, in game-play terms, Havoc: Wonders, the inventions of Geniuses, will almost-certainly go haywire when touched, picked up or interacted with by an ordinary human. This effect is especially bad when an actual scientist does so.
In GURPS the curious disadvantage causes your character to do exactly this and getting a penalty to your roll if the button is big red and has do not press written on it.
In Xenoblade, while Alvis is informing the party about the traps scattered around the High Entia Tomb, Reyn wanders off, delivers the line, and pushes the button in front of him. Cue trapdoor sending everyone (and eventually Riki) to the Catacombs.
In Gotcha Force, Yuji will occasionally say this when one of his borgs is destroyed. Given that he does occasionally use borgs that specialize in kamikaze tactics, like the aptly-named Walking Bomb, the implication is (mostly) clear.
In the RPG Albion you enter a dungeon with red and green pressure plates. The green plates have positive effects (they open doors that block your way, or treasure rooms), while red ones more or less negative ones (they release monsters or open rooms with cursed items). At one point you enter a room with a blue pressure plate — and a party member, curious what it does, steps on it, which opens a trap door and sends the party crashing down below.
The controls in SimAnt included an unmarked white "mystery button" whose effects changed at random with each click. It might tell you a joke, rapidly play every single sound effect, let the spider shoot lasers from its eyes, or annihilate most of your colony. (There were plenty of other effects, some beneficial, but on average clicking the button was disadvantageous to the player.)
Mentioned in Mass Effect 1 with the right party-members on Noveria where there is a button which sets off a deadly Neutron purge. Kaidan will actually mention that it's always a good idea to RTFM before pressing any buttons, to Liara's confusion.
In Mass Effect 3 there's a random button on Sur'Kesh that Shepard can repeatedly press, with no effect other than causing a nearby salarian to get incredibly annoyed. Eventually, the salarian informs Shepard that if their so enamoured with that button, they should get their own feces analyser.
Beat, from The World Ends with You: "Yo, you show me a button, and I want to push it." To which Neku replies "They design traps like this with you in mind..." (What does it do? Nothing, unless you've solved the puzzle; if you have, the box opens, granting you a key needed to get past a barrier and progress.)
Tychus: Now how did I miss this button with a skull on it? Adjutant:Nuclear launch detected.(final Dominion Valhalla base flattened seconds later)
Starship Titanic has a button that says, "Push button to disarm bomb." You can guess what it actually does.
In World of Warcraft, the boss Mimiron is an inventor, fought in his main workshop. Behind the tank he's adjusting when you encounter him is a massive red button, which is labelled "Do No Press This Button". Pressing it triggers the self-destruct mechanism and the boss hard mode, with a short timer and flames everywhere, as well as provoking an angry rant from the boss on how stupid it was to press that button.
In the Mogu'shan Vaults instance, the guide NPC, Lorewalker Cho, announces one section of the instance with "Ah, the ancient vaults of the Kings of Mogu'shan! Hmm... what might this button do?" Turns out it displays to Cho a history of the rule of the (evil) mogu emperors - and also conjures material phantasms that attempt to use your raid as object lessons in the brutality of said emperors. (You must complete this sequence to proceed, as the final set of phantasms are the next boss encounter, and open a secret passage upon their demise.)
During the Dr. Lugae and Barnabas boss battle in Final Fantasy IV, if you defeat Barnabas first, Lugae will pilot a new one afterward, and accidentally press a self-destruct button wondering what it does, despite the fact that he was the one who created that robot in the first place.
At the beginning of Tales of Monkey Island Chapter 3: Lair of the Leviathan, De Cava wonders what the button on the locket does after Guybrush has handed said trinket over to him. It turns out that pressing the button initiates the Voodoo Lady's Grand Theft Me of De Cava as she tells Guybrush his next mission.
Ratchet & Clank, has an early mission where it asks you, "Press the shiny red button?". Which turns out to be a self-destruct button.
In Pokémon Red and Blue, examining a poster in the Celadon Game Corner causes the game to tell you there's a button behind it, then asks if you want to press it. In the remake, Pokémon FireRed and LeafGreen, once you press it, the game replies, "Who wouldn't?" (It opens up a stairwell into the basement.)
In a mission of Grand Theft Auto V in which he steals a working Weaponized Car from the set of a spy movie, Franklin wonders aloud what a certain button on the dashboard does, and the player is invited to find out. It's the Ejection Seat, and the obnoxious starlet in the passenger seat goes flying out through the roof.
One section near the end of the game in Another World has the player riding a giant armed vehicle into a packed arena while armed guards fire on it. The player is then presented with a panel of buttons without context, which they're supposed to deduce the correct order in which to push them in order to activate the vehicle's escape pods, though it's much easier to just hammer on every single button (which also activates the vehicles' mounted laser cannons) until the scene ends.
In The Demented Cartoon Movie, a Blah Guy comes across a set of three buttons, each with a picture beside it. The first is of a brick wall, the second is of a kamikaze watermelon, and the third is an Earth-Shattering Kaboom. He doesn't speak, but seems to do some thinking before he presses each one — yes, he does press the third one, which has predictable consequences.
In the third episode of Rooster Teeth's Minecraft series, there's a small button innocuously located on the outskirts of Achievement City. When Michael finds and presses it, Geoff and Gavin can be seen quickly backing away from the city square shortly before several hundred blocks of TNT that were hidden under the city detonate, turning the city into a giant crater.
A very common theme in Freeman's Mind. Freeman will frequently say variations on this as he recklessly presses any unlabeled button that the player would normally press in-game without question or justification.
DeeDee elevated this to an art form, as this would usually be the last thing Dexter would hear before one of his inventions goes awry. She sort of Lampshaded it in the episode where Dexter's trying to sleep:
DeeDee: I went into your lab... and, I pushed this button... Dexter: Oh, just like the last thousand times? DeeDee: I think it's really serious this time... (cut to self-destruct device counting down)
This is the attitude that Darkwing approached the Ramrod with in the pilot. He was deliberately trying to disable it or at least break it — he ended up overloading it. The explosion was visible from miles and miles away.
Gosalyn can be pretty bad about it as well.
Gosalyn: What else does it do? "Don't touch that!!" Gosalyn: Why not? (presses the button anyway)
Ron Stoppable. One major example is in A Sitch in Time where by foolishly pressing the dangerously button he destroyed an evil giant statue monkey.
This line + Drakken's mother = one of the funniest moments in the series.
When Batman and the Joker team up in Batman: The Brave and the Bold, the Joker asks this about every button in the Batmobile.note It might well be a Casting Gag, since the Joker's VA, Jeff Bennett, was also the dad on Dexter's Laboratory. Finally, when Batman warns him to especiallynot push the big red button, the Joker does, getting sprayed with sleep gas as a consequence. Even better, he does it twice. Bruce smirks at the second one.
Lampshaded in an episode of Family Guy. Peter presses a button clearly marked "Do Not Press This Button". A small Asian man walks up to him, bows, then kicks Peter in the head.
In an episode of Invader Zim, specifically "Battle of the Planets", GIR is sent to distract Dib. He goes off and makes it look like he's going to do something evil and actually competent, when all he ends up doing is randomly pushing buttons on Dib's controls, saying, "What's this do? What's that do?" And somehow this manages to fulfill his given assignment regardless.
The classic The Ren & Stimpy Show episode "Space Madness" ends with Commander Hoek, driven mad by... well, by space madness, brings Cadet Stimpy around the bend with him by ordering him to guard the History Eraser Button, with a very strict order not to let anyone touch it. Finding out what that button does is already tantalizing enough before the narrator decides to pile on the excruciating suspense.
Narrator: Oh, how long can trusty Cadet Stimpy hold out? How can he possibly resist the diabolical urge to push the button that could erase his very existence? Will his tortured mind give in to its uncontrollable desires? Can he withstand the temptation to push the button that even now beckons him ever closer? Will he succumb to the maddening urge to eradicate history at the mere push of a single button? The beautiful, shiny button? The jolly, candy-like button? Will he hold out, folks? CAN he hold out? Stimpy: NO I CAN'T! (pushes button) Narrator: Tune in next week as—
Phineas and Ferb had this exchange (although it might have been more panic than curiosity):
Phineas: Alright, Candace, you'll be fine as long as you don't push any buttons randomly. Candace: I CAN'T HEAR YOU, TOO BUSY PUSHING BUTTONS RANDOMLY!
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2003): During their first off-planet adventure, the Turtles end up fleeing from some Triceratons in a flying car, with Mikey in the "sidecar".
Donny: Uh, leave the shiney buttons alone, Mikey! Mikey: But it might be something really good. (his segment starts to detach) Or not.
The Bugs Bunny cartoon "Lighter Than Hare" has Bugs' robot facing off against Yosemite Sam Of Outer Space's robot:
(all lines delivered stiltedly robotic)
Bugs robot: Eh, what's up, doc?
Sam's robot: I'll show you what's up. (pulls ray gun) You're coming with me.
Bugs robot: I'll go with you on one condition. That you don't press this button. (points to button on body frame)
Sam's robot: Oh, yeah? No Earth robot is going to tell me what button to press. I'm a-pressin'!
(presses button; gets clobbered by forward-plunging mallet)
Bertie Mouse in the Warner Bros. cartoon "House-Hunting Mice" (the last button he presses causes him and Hubie to be taken to the cleaners by the house's remote-controlled units):
Bertie: (sing-song) I get to push the next button! I get to push the next button!
Little Miss Whoops from The Mr. Men Show usually has problems with what button to push.
Little Miss Whoops: Which one of these is the brake? Better try them all.
Wander of Wander over Yonder does this on Lord Hater's ship in the episode, "The Prisoner".
Do you know the button song?
The button song?
The button song?
When you play the button song
You find out what goes wrong!
The subject of Megamind: The Button of Doom. Having renounced his villainous ways, Megamind auctions off all his weapons and evil devices. At the end of the day the only thing left is a Big Red Button. Megamind suggests it probably just opens the garage door. It turns out to activate a Humongous Mecha. Oops!
Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton was supposed to be given a ride in Google's driverless car. The first thing she did after sitting inside it was to push the "Emergency Stop" button, which deactivated the car.