Can Sports and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Reduce Crime in Chicago?

Chicago’s “Becoming a Man” project aims to teach students how to deal with anger before it becomes crime, and it’s recently been substantially funded by the city. Here’s how it works.

Becoming a Man chicago

Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune

The other day Ta-Nehisi Coates, an Atlantic writer who’s done some great stuff on Chicago, wrote a New York Times column on the “code of the streets.” A native of West Baltimore, Coates was in Chicago in one of its first warm days of what’s been a cold spring. It’s the kind of weather a visitor to Chicago should welcome, but he recognized it as what he calls “fighting weather,” which is a reality. And Coates was treated to a Chicago tradition: running into confrontational drunk dudes on State Street. How he reacted was familiar even to me, as a kid from the sticks:

I have all the repressed rage of a kid who was bullied — except now I have some size to match. At that moment, violent fantasies, wholly unmentionable, were dancing in my head. Contributing to those fantasies was a simple maxim inherited from childhood: “Thou shalt never be found a punk.”

My friends, being like me, and doubtlessly pumped up by the presence of other males, felt the same. There were four of us and two of them. But against all our instincts, we let it pass.

Some of it is probably a matter of temper; I have what the University of Chicago’s Harold Pollack calls “hostile attribution bias (over-attribution of malevolent intent to others)” and “catastrophizing (the tendency to think negative events are even more negative than they are).” But as Coates points out, it’s also practical training in a violent area: “These values are often denigrated by people who have never been punched in the face. But when you live around violence there is no opting out. A reputation for meeting violence with violence is a shield.” That atmosphere takes what can be found in upstanding citizens and pours gas all over it.

Pollack recently published a study of a Chicago program you may have heard about: “Becoming a Man,” a diversionary experiment grounded in cognitive-behavioral therapy and sports (via Kevin Drum; the results stem out of work done by Jens Ludwig, which made news a few months ago and led to city funding for the program). And it’s that reactionary, intemperate instinct, Pollack argues, that’s the biggest problem with crime in Chicago’s streets (emphasis mine):

At 3pm on Saturday, June 2, 2012, in the South Shore neighborhood just a few miles from the University of Chicago, two groups of teens were arguing in the street about a stolen bicycle. As the groups began to separate, someone pulled out a handgun and fired, hitting a 16-year-old named Jamal Lockett in the chest. Lockett was rushed up Lake Shore Drive to Northwestern Hospital where he was pronounced dead. Two weeks later, prosecutors filed first-degree murder charges against the alleged shooter, Kalvin Carter – 17 years old.

[snip]

The example is also representative with respect to its motivation, which highlights the potential impact of CBT interventions that reduce errors in judgment and decision-making. While media portrayals emphasize strategic, instrumental violence (for example, the shootings committed by Snoop Pearson and Chris Partlow as part of Marlo Stanfield’s drug war against Avon Barksdale in The Wire), as suggested by our example, this is not true of most violent events: In Chicago, the site of our study, police believe that roughly 70 percent of homicides stem from “altercations,” compared to only about 10 percent from drug-related gang conflicts.

“Strategic, instrumental violence” is something the police are well-placed to combat by targeting the agents of that violence. CeaseFire exists one step before the police, trying to intervene after a conflict is known to exist but before it escalates into violence or generates revenge. But it’s still perilously close to the end of the chain of violence. Ideally, it would be stopped while it’s still just repressed rage, and that’s the point of Becoming a Man. Here’s one example of how it works:

The very first activity for youth in the program is the “Fist Exercise.” Students are divided into pairs; one student is told he has 30 seconds to get his partner to open his fist. Then the exercise is reversed. Almost all youth attempt to use physical force to compel their partners to open their fists. During debrief, the group leader asks youth to explain what they tried and how it worked, pointedly noting that (as is usually the case) almost no one has asked their partner to open their fist. When youth are asked why, they usually provide responses such as: “he wouldn’t have done it,” or “he would have thought I was a punk.” The group leader will then follow-up by asking: “How do you know?” The exercise is an experiential way to teach youth about hostile attribution bias.

And it has an athletic component:

WSC sessions, one-to-two hours each, include non-traditional sports (archery, boxing, wrestling, weightlifting, handball, and martial arts) that require focus, self-control, and proper channeling of aggression, and also provide youth with additional opportunities for reflection on their automatic behavior (“so after you got hit in the face during that boxing match, what were you thinking that led you to drop your hands and charge blindly?”)

As someone who used to take sports seriously as a kid, this makes some sense. Think of Michael Jordan, and now LeBron James, as Pete Segall writes: “One thing LeBron James has gotten frighteningly good at in the past few years is playing angry.” It’s easy to let all that anger out in one explosion; controlling it takes effort and practice, and sports is an abstract realm to practice that in.

And Pollack found the BAM program works: “What is perhaps most surprising about these findings is the size of the gains in schooling outcomes (which could translate into increased graduation rates of 7-22%) and observed reductions in violent-crime arrests (44%) given the relatively limited number of one-or-two-hour sessions participants attended (about 13) and the low cost of the intervention ($1,100 per participant).” Pollack contrasts this with public schooling, where “little attention is currently devoted to addressing non-academic factors that affect long-term outcomes of at-risk youth.” But that’s changing in Chicago as well, where cognitive-behavioral intervention is being introduced into the schools.

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