Before I left, I probably heard my parents say, “be careful of the pickpockets in France!” more than a hundred times. But I’ll admit, I didn’t really take it to heart. After all, it’s not like this is my first time in a foreign city, and I felt confident in my ability to manage myself—until one of my roommates told me how she had gotten pickpocketed coming right off the metro from the airport. On the first day!
I was shocked, but I still naively believed I would be okay. If anyone tried to reach into my pockets I would definitely feel it, I thought.
Then came Day 2. As my friends and I were walking to a group picnic at the Eiffel Tower—in fact, just as we were about to pass our own apartment on Avenue de Suffren—a man on the phone suddenly dropped a bunch of coins onto the ground right in front of me. This drew my attention as I sidestepped to the right and kept walking, even commenting that I should have stopped to help him pick up the coins. Suddenly, one of my friends turned and whispered that she thought she saw another guy pass to my right and take his hand out of my pocket. I immediately patted my pockets and realized my phone was gone! Instantly I felt my heart rate pick up as I turned and ran after the guy to confront him, and later on his partner too.
Pickpockets are known for taking advantage of inattentional blindness, a phenomenon that you may have even seen in the famous “gorilla” study (video linked here) that showed the extent of how much our perception can be manipulated by directing our attention towards certain things (Simons and Chabris, 1999). You have probably also experienced this in your daily life: for example, as a pedestrian, you are more likely to notice the other pedestrians walking around you or the smell of the coffee shop you’re passing by; as a driver though, you probably wouldn’t notice any of that, but rather notice things like traffic lights, speed limits, and other cars. Even though the pedestrian and the driver have the same things in their environment, the brain filters and processes them differently. A recent publication found that human subjects were more likely to notice unexpected objects in close areas with some risk detected and fail to notice similar objects in areas where there was no threat detected (Wood and Simons, 2019). For me, the first man who dropped his change on the ground immediately diverted my attention–both visually and aurally–to the situation on my left, which I had identified as more of an immediate risk to me than the man on my right, which I had not even noticed passing by me (even though he was wearing a bright blue shirt).
They also suggest that it is not only the context of what is around you, but also how you can interact with those objects that influence how you focus your attention (Wood and Simons, 2019). Even though both subjects in the environment were younger men, I was forced to interact with the man who dropped his coins to step out of the way, right into the proximity of the pickpocket who I was not forced to engage with and so did not pay any attention to, allowing him to slip his hand into my pocket.
However, now that I reflect on my actions in response to the theft, I also see where I may have acted a little irrationally. After I told my parents that night, they did give me an angry lecture, but more about my decision to chase after someone who could possibly be dangerous (in my defense, what else could I have done? Flag down a police officer with my non-existent French skills?)
I’d argue that my actions may have to do with the idea that under acute stress, people seem to make more instinctive, less logical decisions. In dangerous situations, animals may show signs of sympathetic nervous system activation (the “fight or flight” response) including increased heart rate, sweating, and respiration (Graham, 1953)—all of which I experienced. There also seems to be two decision-making pathways that evolved in the brain: one, a fast, automatic processing that relies mostly on instinct and involuntary habits, while the other is slower and requires more effortful, goal-directed cognition (Yu, 2016).
In her “stress induced deliberation-to-intuition” model, Yu proposes that under high pressure situations, people tend to fall back on emotional or innate responses to make decisions—going with your “gut”—rather than higher-order analytic reasoning (2016). In that split second that I realized my phone was gone, my mind blanked and my instincts told me to chase after the person and get it back. Had I hesitated, I may have thought about potential dangers and other alternatives I could have done, in order to determine the best way forward. But in the end, I was able to get my phone back, so lesson learned!
Graham B.F. (1953). Neuroendocrine components in the physiological response to stress. Ann. N. Y. Acad. Sci. 56(2):184–199.
Simons D. J., Chabris C. F. (1999). Gorillas in our midst: sustained inattentional blindness for dynamic events. Perception 28, 1059–1074. doi:10.1068/p2952
Wood, K., & Simons, D. J. (2019). The spatial allocation of attention in an interactive environment. Cognitive research: principles and implications, 4(1), 13. doi:10.1186/s41235-019-0164-5
Yu R. (2016). Stress potentiates decision biases: A stress induced deliberation-to-intuition (SIDI) model. Neurobiology of stress, 3, 83–95. doi:10.1016/j.ynstr.2015.12.006
Image 1 taken by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra
Image 2 taken as a screenshot from Google maps
Image 3 taken from Peter Fisk