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The Art of Misdirection: Apollo Robbins (Transcript)

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Apollo Robbins at TED Talks

Apollo Robbins – TED Talk TRANSCRIPT

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.

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 the things right in front of us are often the hardest 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. I was doing some shopping before.

You’ve looked at them a few times today, but I’ll ask you a question. Without looking at it 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, close them down. 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? Interesting idea.

Let’s 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?

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Now open your eyes. Show of hands, were you right? Interesting, isn’t it? Some of us are a little bit more perceptive than others, it seems.

But I have a different theory about 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 lots 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, it’s 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. For example, the cocktail effect: You’re in a party, having conversations with someone, and yet you can recognize your name without realizing 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 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?

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And when I do that, your Frank turns around. He accesses the file. He has to rewind the tape. What’s interesting is, he can’t rewind the tape at the same time that he’s trying to process new data.

This sounds like a good theory, but I could talk for a long time, tell you lots of things, and a portion of them may be true, but I think it’s better if I tried to show that to you here live.

If I come down, I’m going to do a bit of shopping. Just hold still where you are. Hello, how are you? It’s lovely to see you. Wonderful job onstage. Lovely watch, it doesn’t come off very well. Do you have a ring as well? Good. Just taking inventory. You’re like a buffet. Hard to tell where to start, so many great things.

Hi, how are you? Good to see you. Hi, sir, could you stand up, please? Just right where you are. You’re married, you follow directions well. Nice to meet you, sir. You don’t have a lot in your pockets. Anything down here? Hopefully so. Have a seat. There you go. You’re doing well.

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