The neuroscience of pickpockets  JAN 01 2013

In the latest issue of the New Yorker, Adam Green profiles Apollo Robbins, by most accounts the world's best pickpocket. How he goes about engaging his prey is fascinating:

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."

Hard to choose just one passage from this story, so I will also include this bit about attention:

But physical technique, Robbins pointed out, is merely a tool. "It's all about the choreography of people's attention," he said. "Attention is like water. It flows. It's liquid. You create channels to divert it, and you hope that it flows the right way."

Robbins uses various metaphors to describe how he works with attention, talking about "surfing attention," "carving up the attentional pie," and "framing." "I use framing the way a movie director or a cinematographer would," he said. "If I lean my face close in to someone's, like this" -- he demonstrated -- "it's like a closeup. All their attention is on my face, and their pockets, especially the ones on their lower body, are out of the frame. Or if I want to move their attention off their jacket pocket, I can say, 'You had a wallet in your back pocket -- is it still there?' Now their focus is on their back pocket, or their brain just short-circuits for a second, and I'm free to steal from their jacket."

This routine is a pretty good demonstration of how Robbins diverts attention for the purpose of theft.

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