Pickpocketing as applied neuroscience

Sleights of the Mind, an excellent 2013 book, explored the neuroscience of magic and misdirection, with an absolutely riveting section on stage pickpocket Apollo Robbins and the practical, applied neuroscience on display in his breathtaking stunts (like taking your watch off your wrist without your noticing!).

The BBC has an excellent summary of this work, with the latest word on the way that the systematic, experimental study of pickpocketing is revealing important truths about the biological limits of our attention. They talk to James Brown (no relation) a UK stage pickpocket, about his study of Romanian pickpocket gangs in London Bridge, and how a pickpocket who can select the most vulnerable victims can get by with very little skill indeed.

Of course, if you want to play with someone’s powers of perception, a good time to try would be late at night when after a few drinks everything is already a little fuzzy. Brown says he spent a particularly fascinating night observing pickpockets outside nightclubs in London’s Trafalgar Square.

“They employ some clever tactics. A classic is that a girl comes up to you outside of a club and starts talking to you and as she’s doing it she starts rocking very gently. And the person thinks they are rocking so they compensate and start rocking and fall over. And she’s very kind and she helps you up and maybe her friend helps, too. You stumble off and the next morning you realise your watch has gone and your wallet is gone, everything’s gone.”

Having said all that, Brown is keen to point out that most thefts are opportunistic. “Having spent some time with the Romanian pickpocket gangs in London Bridge, it was fascinating to see how the level of skill is far less than you think. There’s a danger that these people are portrayed as being so skilled that it becomes almost endearing and elegant. Most of these people aren’t that at all, they are mostly opportunistically thieves.”

But, he warns, they are opportunistic enough to keep up with new technology. In the not too distant future, hacking contactless debit cards could prove just as fruitful for thieves as hacking our minds.

How pickpockets trick your mind [Caroline Williams/BBC]

(via Schneier)

(Image: Attention aux PickPockets (dans La Tour Eiffel) @EiffelTower, Duncan Hull, CC-BY)