The Pizza (or Cognitive Bias and Uses of Distraction)

by Tim Sommers

I’m not really interested in magic. But I am interested in crime. So, recently while reading a discussion of close-in magic by neuroscientists I perked up when they got to the question of how criminals, and others of questionable character (like magicians), steal wristwatches right off their victims’ wrist without being detected. (Still relevant? Wrist watch wearing, admittedly, is way down from its peak in the 1950s, but a third of adult males still wear one every day – and then there’s smartwatches, step counters, etc.)

Apparently, there’s a skill and a trick involved in stealing a watch. The skill is to learn to undo the clasp using just your middle and pointer fingers, while simultaneously shaking hands with someone. Sure, that’s quite a skill to master, but I was more curious about how you then yank a watch off someone’s wrist without them noticing – particularly a watch with a “deployant clasp” that doesn’t open all the way. (See image above.)

Here’s what you do. You just clap the person on the shoulder at the same moment you yank off the watch. Apparently, this works. It’s all about distraction. Magicians have a fancy word for distraction. They call it “misdirection.” Personally, I find this irritating. I’ll stick with distraction.

Here’s another example of distraction from a magician. Before the start of a magic show I was dragged to, the audience was encouraged to come on stage and examine this large container to make sure it was real, solid, and had no trap door or hidden egress. Right before the show started the container was turned around by assistants, then closed. When the show opened, the container was turned back around, opened, and the magician stepped out to thunderous applause.

The crazy part is how the trick works. Having the audience check it out ahead of time was just a distraction. When they turned the container around, before they closed the door, the magician strolled casually out of the wings and climbed inside in full-view of the audience. I saw it clearly because I knew it was going to happen (because I had read a book the magician had written). But shouldn’t everyone have seen it? (Don’t even get me started on the “Invisible Gorilla.”)

Which brings me to my old roommate Nick.

One Saturday morning the slamming of the front door of our apartment woke me from a dead sleep. When I heard the door to Nick’s room close as well, I got up and went to the bathroom. On my way back, I smelled something delicious. I went into the kitchen. Pizza. It was from a chain we all know, but I took a slice anyway. I took one bite and regretted it. It was terrible. I’m sorry, but there is such a thing as bad pizza. So, I just put the the slice back in the box, closed the lid, and went back to bed.

A couple of hours later I woke up and Nick was agitated, livid.

“You will never believe what happened,” he said, “Never.”


“I bought a pizza and when I got it home it had a bite out of it.”

I hesitated. “What did you do?”

“I went back and had it out with the manager. There was a lot of shouting, but in the end, they gave me a new pizza But they told me to never come back. I’m banned.”

“That’s ok,” I said.

“Their pizza is terrible, anyway.”

Before I get to the rest of this, I have to explain Nick’s bad habit. If you left any change out anywhere in his sight, he would take it. He would never dream of taking money out of your wallet, of course, and he wouldn’t even pick up a bill off the floor without asking if it was yours. So, I shouldn’t complain, but it was just impossible to hold onto your change. I even tried keeping laundry money in a little bowl and he would take that too. Which brings me to laundry day.

A couple weeks after the pizza incident, my friends Jen and Tara were over and we were listening to music and I was doing my laundry. The apartment was on the third floor and the laundry room was on the first floor behind a locked door, so I was trudging up and down the stairs, fumbling in and out the door, and I only had just enough change to wash and dry everything. On or about the last load, I realized I had somehow lost five quarters and I was going to be short for the dryer. Jen said, “Nick must have change in his room. He steals everybody else’s.”

“I know,” I said, “but you know I can’t go in there. He’ll freak.”

“Then you’ll have to go back to store for change,” Tara said.

So, I decided to chance it. I told Tara to go out on the balcony and watch for Nick in the parking lot. He was going to be coming any minute. And I asked Jen to stay in the living room and, if he showed up, to try and engage him in conversation just long enough for me to get out of his room. Then I went in for change. And there, right in the middle of his dresser, was a huge, I mean, huge, pickle jar full of coins.

But, of course, no sooner was I in his room than Tara was yelling, “He’s here! He’s coming!”

Now, what I should have done is either or walk out or just reach into the jar and grab a handful of change and get out of there. But for some reason I thought that the thing to do was to pick out exactly five quarters and no more. So, I slid the jar forward on the dresser and started counting. Then I heard the door. But now I had the quarters in hand. I heard Jen talking, a little overly loudly, as one does in trying, self-consciously, to distract someone. I pushed the jar back on the dresser. Then…

Well, have you ever had a piggy-bank or a big glass jar just over-filled with coins? You know what happens when it gets too full, right? You give it just the slightest push, the change shifts in the jar just a tiny bit, and then. . . Bam!

The jar just collapsed into broken glass and the change spread out across the top of the dresser, paused like a cartoon character going over a cliff, and then started to shower off three sides of the dresser at once like a waterfall. The door opened behind me and there was Nick standing at the door looking at me, looking at the waterfall of coins, looking at me, looking at the coins, looking at me…

So, I said, “Nick. I have to tell you the truth. It was me. I took the bite out of that pizza.”

(I told this totally true story originally at a Moth Storyslam at the Housing Works Bookstore Cafe in New York City several years ago. I came in second. I believe losing the magician vote may have cost me the night. Support your local storyslam! The Moth. (All-over.) First Person Arts. (Philadelphia) WordPlay (Pittsburgh) This Much is True. (Chicago) And, bonus, here’s a Moth Radio Hour including me performing live in Pittsburgh. Exciting!)