The Science of Pickpockets

Adam Green profiles thirty-eight year old Apollo Robbins, widely considered the best pickpocket in the world, in the New Yorker.

Studying a pickpocketer reveals a lot about the nature of human attention.

How pickpocket teams work:

Street pickpockets generally work in teams, known as whiz mobs or wire mobs. The “steer” chooses the victim, who is referred to generically as the “mark,” the “vic,” or the “chump,” but can also be categorized into various subspecies, among them “Mr. Bates” (businessman) and “pappy” (senior citizen). The “stall,” or “stick,” maneuvers the mark into position and holds him there, distracting his attention, perhaps by stumbling in his path, asking him for directions, or spilling something on him. The “shade” blocks the mark’s view of what’s about to happen, either with his body or with an object such as a newspaper. And the “tool” (also known as the “wire,” the “dip,” or the “mechanic”) lifts his wallet and hands it off to the “duke man,” who hustles away, leaving the rest of the mob clean. Robbins explained to me that, in practice, the process is more fluid—team members often play several positions—and that it unfolds less as a linear sequence of events than as what he calls a “synchronized convergence,” like a well-executed offensive play on the gridiron.

Robbins, however, works solo.

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.”

He works by controlling your attention.

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.”

Physical technique is only 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.”

(*update* via Kottke) It’s one thing to talk about but another to see. Here’s a video of Robbins in action.

Still curious? Robbins is a devotee of books like Robert B. Cialdini’s Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.