Watch for Pickpockets! (Ypsilon via Wikimedia Commons)

One consequence of my laboratory’s collaboration with stage pickpocket Apollo Robbins is that I am often asked for strategies to thwart pickpockets in the real world. My usual advice is to avoid multitasking while you’re out and about, especially in the midst of a crowd. I speak not only from my experience as a cognitive researcher, but also as a former victim of pickpocketing.

It was my last year of college, and I was on the subway in Madrid. It was winter and I was wearing a large coat with big, deep, easily accessible pockets -- one contained my wallet. I was alone, with no companions to distract me, though that does not mean I was paying attention. Indeed, there is an extremely good chance that I was deeply immersed in one of two habitual pastimes: reading or daydreaming. I didn’t discover the theft of my wallet until I arrived to the apartment. I reported the theft, but never got my belongings back. But back then I was naïve to neuroscience, and had not yet thought about how to protect oneself from pickpockets.

Fast forward a couple of decades, to the day before yesterday. After picking up my 2 year old from daycare, I headed to get my two older kids (ages 4 and 7) from their afterschool program. I arrived with time to spare, and took my toddler to Starbucks for a much-needed dose of caffeine (for me), and a pink cake-pop (for my daughter). A half-hour zoomed by and I grabbed my kid, the stroller, and backpack, ans ran off to pick up the boys. As usual, they raced and roughhoused on the way to the subway station. By the time we sat on the train I was feeling pretty flustered. We have just moved to New York, so it’s not yet second nature for me to keep the kids safe and organized while maneuvering a stroller into the train, while making sure we are heading in the correct direction on the train. Once situated, a young woman tapped me on the shoulder. My backpack was open, she said. I thanked her, closed the zipper, and put the backpack back on. Five minutes later I had this nagging thought that I better check my backpack. It felt unusually light all of the sudden, but I couldn’t be sure I wasn’t imagining it. So when a seat opened up, I tore the zipper open and looked inside.

My laptop was gone. Worse, with the recent move to New York, I hadn’t backed it up in over two months. I sat there in shock, attempting to assess the extent of the damage (hmm, lets see... yep, I'm in trouble) and almost lost it right then and there. It was a grim trip home. I berated myself for having failed to prevent the theft: I had put myself in a situation where I was forced to multitask well beyond my capacity--which like everyone else, is to not be capable of any multitasking--without taking measures to protect my belongings by making them less easily accessible. I could have hung the backpack from the back of the stroller, where it would have been within my line of sight at all times. Or I could have worn my backpack backwards. Or I could have backed up my computer more frequently. I, of all people, should have known better.

I decided to call Starbucks on a lark, just to cover all fronts. There was a minuscule chance that I might have left my laptop there and never taken it into the train station. Ridiculous, but still. I called. They said nobody had found a laptop, which didn’t surprise me. Still, I asked them to please take a look at my table –must have been my desperation speaking. “Is it a Dell computer?” asked the barista. I jumped on a cab with the kids in tow and was reunited with my computer in short order.

Now you may be wondering about the moral of this story. After all, my laptop was not stolen -- but it could have been, and I wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference. There is a lot going on in each of our lives, and our attentional capacity is often exhausted. Problem is, there is no alert that goes off in our brain (“Warning: attention is at less than 10%. Decrease number of ongoing activities by half”) when we have reached our limit. And the fact is, I had already exceeded my limit long earlier, without any awareness of that fact whatsoever.

So, multitasking is a risk factor not only with regards to pickpocketing, but in many other less dramatic scenarios in which we overrate our ability to focus. I was lucky that my mistake had an easy fix, but I this may not be always the case.

In case you’re wondering, I haven’t backed up my laptop yet.