Cognitive ecology of pickpocketing

The world is not designed for pickpockets. Despite this, they successfully cope in it, both with their beneficial manipulation of things and with their management of our attention. Of course, my study “What It Is Like to Be a Pickpocket” should not be considered praise for the craft of pickpockets; it is a demonstration of cognitive ecology and the concept of affordance.

There is no doubt that neuroscience research has a lot to say about the perceptual phenomena used by pickpockets, which to some extent are also magicians. However, my article is not a story about how one brain cheats another brain. I am trying to show something more: these thieves are part of our cultural cognitive ecosystem; therefore, they share with us physical objects, ways of thinking and cultural practices, all of which they use for their own purposes. They are good observers and use different heuristics.

What I focus on in this article is the use of various affordances. The concept of affordance has found application not only in ecological psychology (Gibson, 1966), but also in the psychology of design (Norman, 1988), design engineering (Maier & Fadel, 2001), and even in neuroscience (Cisek, 2017). Unfortunately, this has led not to the integration of these fields but to differentiated accounts of affordances. In my own approach to affordances, however, I perform a certain synthesis. By “affordances” I understand the relational properties of a given agent–environment system that offers the agent specific opportunities for action or behavior. Therefore, these are some cognitive shortcuts that are seen as directly possible in the understanding of design researchers: people can perceive the possibilities of certain actions with minimal cognitive processing (see, for example, Masoudi et al., 2019). One should also not forget social affordances. The social dimension was already taken into account by Gibson himself, who wrote that what another animal offers to the observer is not only behavior but also social interaction. Such affordances involve a pair (or more) of animals in one loop of cooperation, regardless of whether the type of interaction is sexual, cooperation, or even conversation (1979, pp. 41–42). This social dimension has also been noticed by design researchers (e.g. Gaver, 1996).

Why did I find the perspective of design research useful here? Because our perception does not divide the elements of the environment into “natural/accidental” and “designed”. The mechanisms of human–environment interaction that are used by researchers and engineers of design are mechanisms that we use constantly in everyday life.

On the one hand, good design reduces users’ need for analysis or reflection. Well-made things “make us smart” (see Norman, 1993). On the other hand, one should not idealize the role of design in our lives as it often barely works or even does not work at all. The artifacts that surround us can be badly designed, badly made, or unsuitable for the needs and context of humans. Their affordances often confuse us, and in these situations we have to deal with problematic design products. We use various heuristics which are also unreliable.

A pickpocket is a special type of user of artifacts and the cultural ecosystem in general. Undoubtedly, he is very fluent in this, although he acts against social norms and uses some affordances in a different way than other people.

To show this better, I refer to fragments of the classic film “Pickpocket” by Robert Bresson.

Selected fragments of Pickpocket

This is, of course, a fairly idealized and sometimes exaggerated example, yet it is very helpful in exposing the socio-cognitive mechanisms of the craft of pickpockets. I use here the suggestive impact of feature films on audiences which is usually absent in the case of video recordings of instructional scenes or scientific experiments. So, although Bresson’s movie cannot be treated as a source of evidence to support my assumptions, it is worth looking at as a kind of screened thought experiment. It is supposed to help us understand from an ecological perspective what it is like to be someone like a pickpocket.

Witold Wachowski

Wachowski, W. M. (2019). What it is like to be a pickpocket. Culture & Psychology

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