Mar 25

Recreational lockpicking

On the theme of demonstrations of exceptional skills via youtube, I recently ran across the channel of the LockPickingLawyer (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCm9K6rby98W8JigLoZOh6FQ/about). He posts videos of picking various kinds of locks together with evaluations on how effective the locks are as security devices. I found this to be highly interesting for a variety of reasons.

First, this seems to be a wonderful example of a highly implicit skill. The mechanical interaction between the tool and the internal elements of the lock cannot even be seen. You could try to explain to me how to do this, but there’s absolutely no question you’d need lots of practice to carry out the procedure successfully. And yet, people obviously not only learn the skill, but get very, very good at it.

Second, this skill is even more pointless than learning to yo-yo (or speed solve a Rubik’s cube).  Locks are peculiar security devices in that they are a minor deterrent at most to actual criminals.  In most circumstances there’s a brute force way around a lock (bolt cutter, break a window) if somebody is determined to break in.  Probably the mostly likely case of somebody picking a lock is a locksmith helping you with a door when you’ve lost or misplaced the key.  And locksmith’s have access to tools that make the perceptual-motor skill relatively less critical.

But if you read the comments on the Lock Picking Lawyer’s videos, you’ll quickly discover this is a hobby that seems to have a reasonably sized interest base.  It appears to be called Lock Sport (http://locklab.com/) where people compete on speed or challenge themselves with increasing difficulty in a way reminiscent of puzzle-solvers (there’s a robust puzzle solving community on youtube as well, but puzzle solving seems like a very explicit process).

I’ve never met anybody who is into this — that I know off.  But if I was picking locks for fun, I don’t think I’d talk about it with people outside the community all that much.  People would likely think you were some kind of aspiring criminal.

Which makes it a great example of a skill some people get really good at, that takes many, many hours of practice and has no particular external value in achieving.

So why do people get good at it?  I can hazard a couple of guesses. In the video comments,some people report the process of practicing to be calming in a way that is reminiscent of ‘flow’ states, which we have thought might be related to dopamine.  Relatedly, the process of picking a lock probably produces a real substantial RPE (reward prediction error) feeling where you struggle with the task for a long time, then suddenly get an unexpected payoff of success.

Honestly, it looks like it might be a fun thing to learn.  But I think I’m not going to go buy tools and try it because I don’t want people to judge me.

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