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
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.
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.
Wachowski, W. M. (2019). What it is like to be a
pickpocket. Culture & Psychology.
Source: Cognitive Science in Search of Unity