Pickpocket's Secret: Our Minds Don't Multi-Task
According to BBC Future, the secret to pickpocket's success is that the mind, spectacularly tuned to notice that single difference, can just as easily be misled by that difference to drop its guard.
According to neuroscientists our brains come pretty much hard-wired to be tricked, thanks to the vagaries of our attention and perception systems. In fact, the key requirement for a successful pickpocket isn’t having nifty fingers, it’s having a working knowledge of the loopholes in our brains. Some are so good at it that researchers are working with them to get an insight into the way our minds work.
The most important of these loopholes is the fact that our brains are not set up to multi-task. Most of the time that is a good thing – it allows us to filter out all but the most important features of the world around us. But neuroscientist Susana Martinez-Conde, the author of the book Sleights of Mind, says that a good trickster can use it against you. She should know: as a researcher at the Laboratory of Visual Neuroscience in Arizona, she has studied how Las Vegas stage pickpocket Apollo Robbins performs his tricks.
The rest of the story here, as is a prior IF blog post on Apollo Robbins, the pickpocket performance artist whose thefts were compared to a Salsa in this lengthy New Yorker piece. While the thefts in the video are awfully impressive, Robbins' understanding of human psychology is equally deft.
One day, over lunch at a Vietnamese restaurant in a Las Vegas strip mall, Robbins demonstrated his method on me. 'When I shake someone’s hand, I apply the lightest pressure on their wrist with my index and middle fingers and lead them across my body to my left,' he said, showing me. 'The cross-body lead is actually a move from salsa dancing. I’m finding out what kind of a partner they’re going to be, and I know that if they follow my lead I can do whatever I want with them.'
Robbins needs to get close to his victims without setting off alarm bells. 'If I come at you head-on, like this,' he said, stepping forward, 'I’m going to run into that bubble of your personal space very quickly, and that’s going to make you uncomfortable.' He took a step back. 'So, what I do is I give you a point of focus, say a coin. Then I break eye contact by looking down, and I pivot around the point of focus, stepping forward in an arc, or a semicircle, till I’m in your space.' He demonstrated, winding up shoulder to shoulder with me, looking up at me sideways, his head cocked, all innocence. 'See how I was able to close the gap?' he said. 'I flew in under your radar and I have access to all your pockets.'
Learning how magic tricks are done is often disappointing, because it’s not really magic. With Robbins, though, effect and method are one and the same, and seeing how he accomplishes his thefts is just as impressive as witnessing, or failing to witness, the acts themselves. Each movement dovetails perfectly with the next, with no extraneous steps or flourishes. When he places his arm somewhere, it’s not an accident; he’s blocking his victim’s view or locking him in place or temporarily stashing a wallet by pinning it against its owner’s body.
I loved the comparison of a pickpocket's work to a dance. The comic's ability to slip past our planked up defenses to lift hidden assumptions has, I think, a similar thieving grace. Live every art, its power is revelatory.