“The things right in front of us are often the hardest to see,” declares Apollo Robbins, the world’s most famous theatrical pickpocket. “The things you look at every day, that you’re blinded to.”
As he says these words, he’s standing on stage at a TED conference in 2013.He invites the audience to close their eyes, then to try to recall what he’s wearing. It’s not easy.
We imagine that we would have filed all those details away, after a couple of minutes of looking at him speaking. And indeed we could have done.
But we didn’t.
When we open our eyes we see he’s wearing a dark waistcoat and jacket, a striped tie and a dark-purple shirt.
Robbins ambles into the audience, finding a volunteer — Joe — and leading him on stage. For the next three minutes, Robbins proceeds to bewilder Joe.
He announces that he’s trying to steal Joe’s watch, but then asks Joe to check his pockets. In that instant of distraction, the watch is gone.
It reappears a moment later on Robbins’s wrist. Robbins’s larcenous skills are legendary — he once stole actress Jennifer Garner’s engagement ring, and the badges of Jimmy Carter’s secret service bodyguards.
Poor Joe didn’t stand a chance.
But it is the final flourish of this talk that is most intriguing. After sending Joe back to the audience, Robbins asks everyone, this time keeping their eyes open, what he is wearing.
He has been in plain view of a thousand people the whole time — quite literally in the spotlight. And yet somehow the shirt is now pale and checked, not plain and dark. The tie and waistcoat have gone.
As he says: often the hardest things to see are right in front of us.
It’s difficult for any of us not to be fascinated by Robbins’s skill and particularly by that final act of stagecraft. But for me, after more than a decade dabbling in the field of fact-checking and fighting misinformation, there was an important truth in the disappearance of the waistcoat: we pay less attention than we think.
Why do people — and by “people” I mean “you and I” — accept and spread misinformation?
The two obvious explanations are both disheartening.
The first is that we are incapable of telling the difference between truth and lies. In this view, politicians and other opinion-formers are such skilled deceivers that we are helpless, or the issues are so complex that they defy understanding, or we lack basic numeracy and critical-thinking skills.
The second explanation is that we know the difference and we don’t care. In order to stick close to our political tribe, we reach the conclusions we want to reach.
There is truth in both these explanations. But is there a third account of how we think about the claims we see in the news and on social media — an account that, ironically, has received far too little attention?
That account centres on attention itself: it suggests that we fail to distinguish truth from lies not because we can’t and not because we won’t, but because — as with Robbins’s waistcoat — we are simply not giving the matter our focus.
What makes the problem worse is our intuitive overconfidence that we will notice what matters, even if we don’t focus closely. If so, the most insidious and underrated problem in our information ecosystem is that we do not give the right kind of attention to the right things at the right time.
We are not paying enough attention to what holds our attention.
The art of stage magic allows us to approach this idea from an unusual angle: Gustav Kuhn’s recent book, Experiencing the Impossible, discusses the psychology of magic tricks.
“All magic can be explained through misdirection alone,” writes Kuhn, a psychologist who runs the Magic Lab at Goldsmiths, University of London.
Such a strong claim is debatable, but what is beyond debate is that the control and manipulation of attention are central to stage magic.
They are also central to understanding misinformation. The Venn diagram of misinformation, misdirection and magic has overlaps with which to conjure.
*Feature Post Photo credit: Rhett Wesley on Unsplash