Written by Daniel Latto in Latest News

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  • TED: Apollo Robbins: The art of misdirection – Apollo Robbins (2013)
December 15, 2013

Do you think it’s possible to control someone’s attention? Even more than that, what about predicting human behavior? I think those are interesting ideas, if you could. I mean, for me, that would be the perfect superpower, actually kind of an evil way of approaching it. But for myself, in the past, I’ve spent the last 20 years studying human behavior from a rather unorthodox way: picking pockets. When we think of misdirection, we think of something as looking off to the side, when actually it’s often the things that are right in front of us that are the hardest things to see, the things that you look at every day that you’re blinded to.

For example, how many of you still have your cell phones on you right now? Great. Double-check. Make sure you still have them on you. I was doing some shopping beforehand. Now you’ve looked at them probably a few times today, but I’m going to ask you a question about them. Without looking at your cell phone directly yet, can you remember the icon in the bottom right corner? Bring them out, check, and see how accurate you were. How’d you do? Show of hands. Did we get it?

Now that you’re done looking at those, close them down, because every phone has something in common. No matter how you organize the icons, you still have a clock on the front. So, without looking at your phone, what time was it? You just looked at your clock, right? It’s an interesting idea. Now, I’ll ask you to take that a step further with a game of trust. Close your eyes. I realize I’m asking you to do that while you just heard there’s a pickpocket in the room, but close your eyes.

Now, you’ve been watching me for about 30 seconds. With your eyes closed, what am I wearing? Make your best guess. What color is my shirt? What color is my tie? Now open your eyes. By a show of hands, were you right?

It’s interesting, isn’t it? Some of us are a little bit more perceptive than others. It seems that way. But I have a different theory about that, that model of attention. They have fancy models of attention, Posner’s trinity model of attention. For me, I like to think of it very simple, like a surveillance system. It’s kind of like you have all these fancy sensors, and inside your brain is a little security guard. For me, I like to call him Frank. So Frank is sitting at a desk. He’s got all sorts of cool information in front of him, high-tech equipment, he’s got cameras, he’s got a little phone that he can pick up, listen to the ears, all these senses, all these perceptions. But attention is what steers your perceptions, is what controls your reality. It’s the gateway to the mind. If you don’t attend to something, you can’t be aware of it. But ironically, you can attend to something without being aware of it. That’s why there’s the cocktail effect: When you’re in a party, you’re having conversations with someone, and yet you can recognize your name and you didn’t even realize you were listening to that.

Now, for my job, I have to play with techniques to exploit this, to play with your attention as a limited resource. So if I could control how you spend your attention, if I could maybe steal your attention through a distraction. Now, instead of doing it like misdirection and throwing it off to the side, instead, what I choose to focus on is Frank, to be able to play with the Frank inside your head, your little security guard, and get you, instead of focusing on your external senses, just to go internal for a second. So if I ask you to access a memory, like, what is that? What just happened? Do you have a wallet? Do you have an American Express in your wallet? And when I do that, your Frank turns around. He accesses the file. He has to rewind the tape. And what’s interesting is, he can’t rewind the tape at the same time that he’s trying to process new data.

Now, I mean, this sounds like a good theory, but I could talk for a long time and tell you lots of things, and they may be true, a portion of them, but I think it’s better if I tried to show that to you here live. So if I come down, I’m going to do a little bit of shopping. Just hold still where you are.

Hello, how are you? It’s lovely to see you. You did a wonderful job onstage. You have a lovely watch that doesn’t come off very well. Do you have your ring as well? Good. Just taking inventory. You’re like a buffet. It’s hard to tell where to start, there’s so many great things.

Hi, how are you? Good to see you.

Hi, sir, could you stand up for me, please? Just right where you are. Oh, you’re married. You follow directions well. That’s nice to meet you, sir. You don’t have a whole lot inside your pockets. Anything down by the pocket over here? Hopefully so. Have a seat. There you go. You’re doing well.

Hi, sir, how are you? Good to see you, sir. You have a ring, a watch. Do you have a wallet on you? Joe: I don’t. Apollo Robbins: Well, we’ll find one for you. Come on up this way, Joe. Give Joe a round of applause. Come on up Joe. Let’s play a game.


Pardon me.

I don’t think I need this clicker anymore. You can have that. Thank you very much. I appreciate that.

Come on up to the stage, Joe. Let’s play a little game now. Do you have anything in your front pockets? Joe: Money. AR: Money. All right, let’s try that. Can you stand right over this way for me? Turn around and, let’s see, if I give you something that belongs to me, this is just something I have, a poker chip. Hold out your hand for me. Watch it kind of closely. Now this is a task for you to focus on. Now you have your money in your front pocket here? Joe: Yup. AR: Good. I’m not going to actually put my hand in your pocket. I’m not ready for that kind of commitment. One time a guy had a hole in his pocket, and that was rather traumatizing for me. I was looking for his wallet and he gave me his phone number. It was a big miscommunication.

So let’s do this simply. Squeeze your hand. Squeeze it tight. Do you feel the poker chip in your hand? Joe: I do. AR: Would you be surprised if I could take it out of your hand? Say yes. Joe: Very. AR: Good. Open your hand. Thank you very much. I’ll cheat if you give me a chance. Make it harder for me. Just use your hand. Grab my wrist, but squeeze, squeeze firm. Did you see it go? Joe: No. AR: No, it’s not here. Open your hand. See, while we’re focused on the hand, it’s sitting on your shoulder right now. Go ahead and take it off. Now, let’s try that again. Hold your hand out flat. Open it up all the way. Put your hand up a little bit higher, but watch it close there, Joe. See, if I did it slowly, it’d be back on your shoulder. (Laughter) Joe, we’re going to keep doing this till you catch it. You’re going to get it eventually. I have faith in you. Squeeze firm. You’re human, you’re not slow. It’s back on your shoulder. You were focused on your hand. That’s why you were distracted. While you were watching this, I couldn’t quite get your watch off. It was difficult. Yet you had something inside your front pocket. Do you remember what it was? Joe: Money. AR: Check your pocket. See if it’s still there. Is it still there? (Laughter) Oh, that’s where it was. Go ahead and put it away. We’re just shopping. This trick’s more about the timing, really. I’m going to try to push it inside your hand. Put your other hand on top for me, would you? It’s amazingly obvious now, isn’t it? It looks a lot like the watch I was wearing, doesn’t it?

(Laughter) (Applause)

Joe: That’s pretty good. That’s pretty good. AR: Oh, thanks. But it’s only a start. Let’s try it again, a little bit differently. Hold your hands together. Put your other hand on top. Now if you’re watching this little token, this obviously has become a little target. It’s like a red herring. If we watch this kind of close, it looks like it goes away. It’s not back on your shoulder. It falls out of the air, lands right back in the hand. Did you see it go? Yeah, it’s funny. We’ve got a little guy. He’s union. He works up there all day. If I did it slowly, if it goes straightaway, it lands down by your pocket. I believe is it in this pocket, sir? No, don’t reach in your pocket. That’s a different show. So — (Squeaking noise) — that’s rather strange. They have shots for that. Can I show them what that is? That’s rather bizarre. Is this yours, sir? I have no idea how that works. We’ll just send that over there.

That’s great. I need help with this one. Step over this way for me. Now don’t run away. You had something down by your pants pocket. I was checking mine. I couldn’t find everything, but I noticed you had something here. Can I feel the outside of your pocket for a moment? Down here I noticed this. Is this something of yours, sir? Is this? I have no idea. That’s a shrimp.

Joe: Yeah. I’m saving it for later.

AR: You’ve entertained all of these people in a wonderful way, better than you know. So we’d love to give you this lovely watch as a gift. (Laughter) Hopefully it matches his taste. But also, we have a couple of other things, a little bit of cash, and then we have a few other things. These all belong to you, along with a big round of applause from all your friends. (Applause)

Joe, thank you very much.


So, same question I asked you before, but this time you don’t have to close your eyes. What am I wearing?



Attention is a powerful thing. Like I said, it shapes your reality. So, I guess I’d like to pose that question to you. If you could control somebody’s attention, what would you do with it?

Thank you.


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