Tuesday, July 01, 2014

In The Blink Of An Eye: Pickpocketing

I cannot explain why, but in an Eroski store yesterday I suddenly turned my head. What I saw in that flash was a woman, tall, in a greyish sort of dress. In front of her was a boy, her son, with a cap on. Why had I suddenly looked at them? I don't know. But what I didn't see was the whole picture. A moment or so later, while I was studying the green peppers in the greengrocery section, I heard a wail and a crying. It was the woman. A member of staff came to her. She had been robbed. Her purse had been lifted from her bag.

I have, or try to have, an acute sense of where I am. Especially in supermarkets in summer. As I enter I look at people. As I go along aisles, I am looking at people. Turning and glancing. I know to be aware. I have seen it happen too often. Or have I? There was one time, in front of the same supermarket, I could see it unfolding. The woman approached the two tourists. But I didn't see it. I knew what was happening but I didn't see. Or maybe I did but a momentary sense of disbelief, a suspension of belief had prevented me from seeing. My mouth went temporarily dumb. By the time I shouted and ran up to the two tourists, she had gone. Nowhere. She had evaporated.

There is an article on the BBC website about how pickpockets use not so much sleight of hand but tricks to fool the mind. The article says, among other things, that "our brains come pretty much hard-wired to be tricked, thanks to the vagaries of our attention and perception systems" and that "(pickpocketing) is as much about capturing all of somebody's attention with other movements", "it's complete attentional overload".

The article talks about how specific movements can fool us. Moving the hand in an arc is far better at holding our attention to the end point of the movement than moving the hand in a straight line. This has to do with saccade, the fast movement of the eye. In a straight line, there is a blind period. With an arc, there is no blind period, the eye follows the movement continuously.

I'm not saying that hand movements or other attention-changing means have been adopted by pickpockets at the supermarket and nor am I saying that I had some sixth sense which made me seemingly involuntarily and suddenly turn and look at the woman, but I am saying that even being hyper-alert or aware can be of little use if the brain is tricked. If it fails to see. Something had made me want to look but then, for whatever reason, I didn't see. After the event, I remembered there was someone else.

In this moment of a blink of an eye, of a trick of the mind, of guard going down, of unawareness, a holiday was ruined. The woman, Russian, was in a desperate state. She was still in a desperate state outside the store where she was waiting for her husband. Between her blubs she said that she had been abroad many times and that nothing like this had ever happened.

Her desperation was all the greater because she had been abandoned. I hadn't initially noticed the other child in the buggy. Now I did. The woman looked as though she was pregnant. What could I say to her?  Why, she asked, were there no cameras in the store? Why indeed? And why no security? Or why is not possible for a victim to be given some help by the store? Why is she left outside in the sun, sobbing, waiting for her husband?

It happens all the time of course. Opportunistic pickpocketing, the flower women, the professional gangs, the bumpers-into, the distractors, the total-attention-grabbers, the ones with hand movements. They are all here. It happens all the time. You should have taken greater care, been more aware. Ah yes, more aware. But sometimes even the aware can be tricked.

I discovered later, was told anyway, that literature advising of potential risks such as pickpocketing was not produced because it would create a "bad image". How much bad image do the resorts need which is the product of inaction, inertia and a failure to warn? How much bad image through there being no assistance for a distraught tourist?

I now have a mobile phone number for the tourist police in Alcúdia. But who else has the number? Supermarkets? Bars? And is the number for the SPAT police, the agents unveiled in May who can assist tourists in their own language? One of whom, it might just have been hoped, could have come to the help of a Russian tourist abandoned outside a supermarket.

* http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20140629-how-pickpockets-trick-your-mind

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