Youths at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center watch a poetry reading. WBEZ / Flickr

The intervention has been effective in Chicago schools and detention centers.

Juvenile crime and school drop-out rates are big social problems, so the natural instinct is to address them with big social programs. As a result cities get massive public policies aimed at poverty, education, family life, gangs, and on down the list. Sometimes these efforts help, but they’re difficult to design, and they’re expensive to implement, and the outcomes aren’t always clear.

“That has sort of built up into this sense that these problems are too intractable,” says criminology scholar Sara Heller of the University of Pennsylvania. “That we really can’t do anything unless we do everything.”

Heller’s recent work suggests that’s far from the case. She and a research group that includes poverty scholar Sendhil Mullainathan of Harvard have been studying a relatively modest strategy for reducing juvenile delinquency: getting disadvantaged teens to slow down their decision-making process. It’s an approach that might best be described as thinking about thinking.

Simplistic as it sounds, the initial results are encouraging. In a new working paper, Heller and collaborators report that three slow-thinking interventions conducted with at-risk adolescents in Chicago improved school outcomes and reduced arrests. The findings “stand in stark contrast to the generally dismal record of efforts to improve the long-term life outcomes of disadvantaged youths,” they conclude.

“In fact, there are much lower-intensity interventions that target some of the more proximal causes of these problems,” says Heller. “That can be very effective at a relatively low cost.”

The theory: poor teens “face a higher cost of being automatic.”

The theory behind slow-thinking intervention builds on the psychological concept of “automaticity.” Recently popularized by behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman in his bestselling book Thinking, Fast and Slow, automaticity describes the snap judgments and cognitive shortcuts that help us navigate a busy world.

These rapid responses are a natural way to limit the mental energy we expend on a number of common situations. But Heller and company suspect they can also be harmful to poor youths, who often grow up in very complex environments that require vastly different thought processes—the classroom and the street corner being the two most obvious examples.

Take, for example, the everyday life of a disadvantaged teen growing up in a rough urban neighborhood. In a street setting, complying with every demand the kid encounters might be interpreted as a sign of weakness and an invitation for victimization. But in the classroom, that same kid is expected to comply with a teacher’s request. The result, write Heller and company, is that developing a uniform automatic response to authority might not be in the kid’s best interest:

If they automatically comply to authority in both situations, they will be terrorized on the street. If they resist automatically in both situations they will do poorly in school.

By contrast, a middle-class youth can safely develop an automatic compliance mindset. That strategy will pay off in school, and in the rare instances this kid feels seriously threatened outside the classroom, an authority figure is likely to come to his or her assistance. Since the environments are more consistent, the responses can be, too. So both poor and well-off teens engage in automaticity, write Heller and company, but disadvantaged youths “face a higher cost of being automatic”:

For youth growing up in wealthy, safe environments, their behavior does not have to be as contingent. The expected demeanor at home or in the neighborhood matches what is productive and adaptive in school. Poor youth grow up in areas that require less automaticity.

“So it’s sort of like the environments create the need for this extra skill—this ability to reduce automaticity and to think a little more carefully before acting,” says Heller. “That really comes from the fact that their environments are more challenging.”

The trials: thinking about thinking works.

The researchers studied youth programs in Chicago designed to deliver just this extra skill of helping at-risk teens “slow down and behave less automatically.” Some of these activities are meant to antagonize the kids then guide them through the process of pausing and reflecting. Others teach them to consider a stressful situation from the eyes of an outside observer—essentially pretending they’re being watched by a surveillance camera.

Heller and company emphasize one training technique called the “fist exercise.” One youth gets a ball while a partner gets 30 seconds to take possession. The partner’s initial response is almost always to try to take the ball with physical force. After the exercise, program leaders point out a much easier approach that didn’t occur to anyone: just ask for it nicely. From the working paper:

When prompted on why they did not simply ask, most respond with some version of “he wouldn’t have given it,” or “he would have thought I was a punk.” The leader then asks the other youth, “How would you have reacted if asked nicely for the ball?” The answer inevitably is something like, “I would have given it; it’s just a stupid ball.” The exercise illustrates how students automatically followed one strategy rather than stepping back and considering the situation and weighing all their options carefully.

The researchers report positive results from three randomized-controlled trials involving the slow-thinking programs. One study tracked 2,740 7th-to-10th grade males at 18 Chicago public schools in the disadvantaged south and west sides. Among kids who took part in after-school programs that emphasized slow-thinking techniques—led by the local Youth Guidance organization—there was a 44 percent reduction in arrests for violent crimes, a 38 percent reduction in arrests for other crimes, and improved school outcomes (such as attendance and GPA), compared with those who didn’t partake.

A second study of 2,064 males in 9th and 10th grade in nine public schools found similar results: a 31 percent decline in arrests among those who participated just one day a week in a Youth Guidance program with the slow-thinking training, compared with a control group that received “status quo services.”

A third study broadened the findings to 2,693 high-risk adolescents in the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center. The effect of being randomly assigned to a treatment unit that included some of the slow-thinking strategies reduced the recidivism rate by 13 percent after two months of their release from the center. After 18 months, the reduced return rate among those with training was even greater: 16 percent.

The upshot: 10 minutes can make a difference.

That the training programs reduced problems in two vastly different settings (schools and detention center) gave the researchers confidence that slow-thinking itself, and not some other factor, played a key role in the outcomes. They strengthened this link with a follow-up study involving a “dictator game” designed to provoke retaliation. The youths who’d received training took 79 percent longer than controls to think before acting, a clear sign of more deliberate decisions.

The findings cut against the idea that juvenile delinquency is merely the result of poor self-control. In some cases, that’s no doubt true. But the findings suggest that in many other cases, automaticity gives the appearance of low self-control, when the real problem is that a rapid response helpful in one situation is being misapplied to another. That brief lapse tends to be costlier to at-risk youths than it might be to others, write Heller and collaborators:

As one juvenile detention staff member told us: “20 percent of our residents are criminals, they just need to be locked up. But the other 80 percent, I always tell them – if I could give them back just ten minutes of their lives, most of them wouldn’t be here.” Our results suggest that it is possible to generate sizable changes in outcomes by helping disadvantaged youths recognize their automatic responses and make better decisions during those crucial ten-minute windows.

There are certainly caveats. The intervention might not generalize to other populations, and it’s obviously not a cure-all even when it does work. Crime and drop-outs weren’t eliminated, and in the first study, both problems resurfaced the following year—signs the training period might not be long-lasting. Heller says ongoing studies are trying to determine the optimal duration of a slow-thinking program.

Still, she finds it “heartening” that the researchers found clear measurable changes across several different settings, especially since the resources needed to implement these programs are quite low. (She says program mentors can learn the slow-thinking techniques in just days or a week.) The social benefits of reduced juvenile delinquency are so enormous, she says, that even a limited intervention seems well worth the costs.

“We’re not solving all school problems and not getting rid of all crime,” she says. “That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do anything if we can’t do everything.”

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