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The art of misdirection: Apollo Robbins at TEDGlobal 2013

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Photo: James Duncan Davidson

“Do you think it’s possible to control someone’s attention, or even their behavior? To me that would be the perfect superpower,” says Apollo Robbins at TEDGlobal 2013. “I’ve spent the last 20 years studying human behavior in an unconventional way: by picking pockets.”

Robbins, whom The New Yorker called a “theatrical pickpocket” in their profile of him, is a magician who deals in tricks of attention, rather than in tricks with rabbits or disappearing boxes. He says, “When we think of misdirection, we forget that the things you see every day are the things we are most blinded to.”

He asks the audience: is your cell phone still on you? “Double-check,” he says. “I’ve been doing some shopping today.” So. You have your phone. Without looking at it: What’s the icon on the bottom right of the screen? (Try this at home!) People open their phones and look, laughing ruefully at forgetting this simple detail about something they use every day. “Okay,” he says. “Now shut off your phones again and close your eyes. Do you remember what I’m wearing?” (We don’t.) Finally, Robbins stumps us with another simple question: “Now, what time is it? You just had your phone out, you just looked.” It’s a matter of paying attention, and most of us don’t do it well.


Photo: James Duncan Davidson

“Attention is what steers your experience. I exploit this,” says Robbins. “I play with your attention as a limited resource.”

Robbins comes down from the stage and begins shaking hands with audience members on the aisles. “You’re like a buffet,” he says. “It’s hard to decide what to take.” As he walks back onstage with a TEDster, Robbins launches into one of his classic routine — get a taste in this video — a poker chip disappearing and reappearing on the man’s shoulder, as his pockets are emptied, and his watch seamlessly ends up around Robbins’ wrist.


Photo: James Duncan Davidson

With the audience member back safely in his seat, Robbins once again addresses the auditorium. “I ask you again: what am I wearing?” A jawdropping moment ensues. “See, attention is a powerful thing.”

Apollo Robbins’ talk is now available for viewing. Watch it on »