Stop, Look, and Listen: A Behavioral Approach to Reducing Teen Violence

Growing up is challenging for every adolescent, but it’s particularly difficult in the United States for young, low-income, black men, where differences in youth outcomes mirror racial and economic divides. Much of the previous literature on troubled youth points to the cycle of poverty as the driving force behind the societal outcomes for teenage males in impoverished communities. This literature has focused on institutional factors, but a recent study takes a more nuanced approach. This study looks at how these teenagers’ individual choices and behaviors affect factors like involvement in violent crime, recidivism, and dropping out of school.

Researchers Sara B. Heller, Anuj K. Shah, Jonathan Guryan, Jens Ludwig, Sendhil Mullainathan, and Harold A. Pollack explore the ways automaticity influences teenagers’ behaviors in their study. Automaticity, as they define it, refers to any unconscious response that a person chooses out of habit. For example, the automatic response to an argument might be to throw a punch. In the case of criminal activity, automaticity can lead to escalation of minor disagreements into intense and consequential confrontations. Heller et al. were interested in the theory that consequences for automatic behavior may vary more for impoverished teens than for affluent teens.

Consider two broad classes of automatic behavior: compliance and resistance. Middle and upper class teenagers generally face homogeneous situations on the street and in school. Both domains are generally safe, predictable environments where automatic compliance produces the best outcome.

However, a teenager from a low-income neighborhood can face vastly different environments at home, at school, and in the street. An automatic response that works well in one of these environments may be disastrous in the other. For example, compliance in school is beneficial to a student’s performance. On the street, compliance can be dangerous. Appearing tough can seem necessary to ensure safety and status. If a teenager is taunted on the street, but exhibits automatic compliance and does not fight back, he might continue to be preyed upon. If a young man is thinking too quickly, he might apply the wrong response.

For those living in these neighborhoods, the cost of automaticity can be high. The solution that the researchers explore is not to teach disadvantaged teenagers to comply or resist uniformly. Instead, they examine interventions that employ cognitive behavioral therapy-based techniques that help youth slow down in stressful situations and decide when to comply and when to resist.

In two separate randomized control trials, the researchers find that this approach significantly reduces crime rates among the studies’ participants. The first trial, completed from 2009 to 2010, looked at the success of BAM (Becoming a Man) programs developed by a Chicago area non-profit called Youth Guidance. These school-based programs aim to teach young men how and when to override their automatic responses and thoughtfully choose a more appropriate behavior. One lesson in the BAM curriculum involves playing a game where a student must obtain an object, like a ball, from his peer. Without direction, many of the students tried unsuccessfully to use physical force to remove the ball from their peers’ hands. After reflecting with the teacher, however, the student learned that he could have been more successful if he had just asked for the ball.

In the 2009-2010 trial, 2,740 seventh through tenth grade students from low-income communities were randomly assigned to after-school programs. Half of these programs applied elements of the BAM curriculum. The researchers found that participation in BAM programs reduced arrests for violent crimes among participants from about 18 percent to eight percent, and arrests for non-violent crimes from about 32 percent to 20 percent. Based on the observed increase in school engagement during the program, the study predicts a seven to 22 percent increase in graduation rates for high school aged participants. These findings are reflected in the chart below.

The second trial was offered to high-risk juvenile arrestees at the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center (JTDC). It implemented similar techniques as were taught in BAM programs, with a focus on deliberate decision making and accountability. The study found that only 17 percent of participants in the program were readmitted within 18 months, compared to 75 percent of the inmates who did not complete the program.

These results seem promising, but there are potential limitations to the research. First, since participation in after-school programing was voluntary, the results might not be representative of the whole population because students who were most likely to engage in violent crime might have chosen not to participate at all. It is also possible that, since the instructors of both the school and JTDC programs were positive social role models, their influence might have accounted for some of the success of the programs, regardless of teenagers learning the behavioral mechanisms.

Despite these potential limits, the cost efficiency of the BAM program is a huge advantage. Researchers estimate that the per-participant cost of BAM-type programs is relatively low: about $2,000 for the school programs, and $60 for the JTDC program. These cost figures complement the researchers’ compelling argument that the success of their trials makes large-scale implementation of BAM programing worth a shot.

Article Source: Heller, Sara B., Anuj K. Shah, Jonathan Guryan, Jens Ludwig, Sendhil Mullainathan, and Harold A. Pollack. “Thinking, Fast and Slow?  Some Field Experiments to Reduce Crime and Dropout in Chicago.” National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper (2015).

Featured Photo: cc/(Nick Hubbard)

Sarah Guminski
Sarah ('17) is a staff writer for Urban Affairs. She is interested in urban social policy.

Comments are closed.