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Odds and Ends: Attention Stealer
Odds and Ends: Attention Stealer

Pickpocket extraordinaire Apollo Robbins wants to show you how unaware you are

Rick Tulka

Apollo Robbins is a master of sleight of hand. He is, after all, the guy who once lifted the badges, car keys, and travel itinerary from the Secret Service agents protecting former U.S. President Jimmy Carter in 2001. The theatrical pickpocket—known as the gentleman thief because he (usually) asks people's permission before he deftly removes their valuables without detection (and then quickly returns everything he takes)—has been wowing crowds in Las Vegas for years. But his performances do more than entertain. Robbins uses diversion and trust to demonstrate flaws in people's perception and provide insights on human behavior. "When we stop questioning what we think we know, all we have left is illusions," he says. Want to see for yourself? Robbins will be a keynote speaker at the DRIVE/ conference, a gathering designed for data professionals, May 17-18, 2016, in Bellevue, Washington. Learn more about the event on page 50.

What do you understand about human attention that most people don't?

My success or failure is contingent on how accurately I can predict, assess, and manage my target's attention. This requires what old thieves used to call a grift sense—an intimate understanding of a mark's awareness. I must consider not only what people are paying attention to but how deeply invested they are in that particular point of focus. Like laser beams and bubblegum, it's all about intensity and stickiness.

How did you become interested in manipulating people's attention?

When I was a young boy, my older brothers used to take me to the zoo. While people gathered to watch the snakes being fed, my brothers would slip through the crowd nicking purses and wallets. On Sunday mornings, I would sit on the steps in front of the pulpit watching my pastor father preach his sermons. Along the way I discovered that manipulation, influence, and motivation were basically different labels stuck on the same toolbox. The difference is in how you intend to use them.

You often use the Henry David Thoreau quote "It's not what you look at that matters, it's what you see." What does that mean to you?

For me, looking equates to pointing a camera. Seeing is the editing and interpretation of that information. Most people are so focused on looking in the right spot that they forget to ask the right questions.

The human brain is wired to fill in gaps and make assumptions. How can people use this knowledge to be better at what they do?

Our mind collects stimuli from the world using attention and perception. These pop into our thinking box as little questions waiting for an answer. In this game of connect the dots, do you use pencil or ink? If you make bold, absolute answers, then you may be vulnerable to false assumptions and misinterpretation of data. If you treat incoming data as a hypothesis to be tested, then you will be thinking critically. You will always have implicit biases and false assumptions. Just be careful not to let your assumptions get stacked so deeply that they can't be questioned. Ask new questions, and question the old answers.

Given your insights on human attention, is it possible to multitask well or are people fooling themselves?

The illusion of multitasking comes from our ability to rapidly alternate between different tasks. Just like with spinning plates—the more you add, the greater the chance of failure. Most people drastically overestimate their ability to multitask, which is great when they are on stage with me but scary when I'm sharing the road with them.

—Interview by Theresa Walker




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