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Teaching Kids in Jail to ‘Think Slow,’ So They Won’t Come Back

Cognitive-behavioral programs in Chicago continue to show promise by teaching kids how to reverse-engineer their instincts.

Members of Becoming a Man at Hyde Park Academy   Photo: Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune

This past weekend I moderated a session at the Printers Row literary festival with Trib crime reporter Peter Nickeas and Harvard prof Laurence Ralph, whom I’d interviewed previously about Renegade Dreams: Living Through Injury in Gangland Chicago, the product of his three years of anthropological work in a local neighborhood. The conversation naturally turned, as it usually does, to “what do we do?”

Among Ralph’s responses: there’s no silver bullet. In other words, the broad answer to “what do we do?” is “lots of things that promise modest results.” (Depending on what you mean by modest, of course—what’s hugely impressive by the standards of social science may seem modest in the more impatient real world.)

One of those things I’ve been following is the Becoming a Man project, a program that emerged out of the University of Chicago 90-year-old agency Youth Guidance and has since been backed by substantial support from the city. It’s been supported because it seems to be working: the program’s cognitive behavioral intervention seems to be working on at-risk youths.

The last time I wrote about BAM and related approaches, I interviewed Sara Heller, who studied BAM at the University of Chicago and has continued to since becoming a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Criminology; she mentioned that she was working on the results of applying the BAM program to juvenile detainees while in detention.

The results are in, at least in the form of a working paper, via FiveThirtyEight’s Andrew Flowers. And the results are encouraging: two randomized controlled trials of BAM that reduced violent-crime arrests by 44 percent and overall arrests by 31 percent respectively; and a third trial held within the county’s juvenile detention center that reduced return rates 21 percent. They’re not silver-bullet numbers—no program, on its own produces them—but they’re substantial.

Flowers’s piece describes well the approach: in short, teaching kids to consider how they respond automatically in situations. Kids who go through BAM, as Flowers writes, think slower: “The youths in the BAM treatment group took 79 percent longer to think before making a decision, backing up the notion that the program’s exercises can help reduce impulsive behavior.”

What’s interesting about the working paper is that it lays out the philosophy behind this. Thinking “impulsively” might sound bad, but everyone has to do it. As the authors write, “because it is mentally costly to think through every situation in detail, all of us have automatic responses to the situations we encounter.”

It reminded me of the time I was the victim of an attempted mugging. I was making change for someone, and he went for my wallet. And when he did so, I went through a decision tree: I had virtually no money in it, and most everything in it was easy to replace, but my social security card was (stupidly) in there. The man who tried to take it was older, seemingly not in great health. And probably not armed, since he just tried to grab my wallet instead of threatening me into giving it to him. Once the element of surprise was gone, he didn’t have anything.

So resisting seemed to make sense. And it worked—as I suspected, he gave up after punching me three or four times. I got a shiner, but a black eye was preferable to replacing my Social Security card. (It did occur to me, after the first punch, that if he broke my glasses that could have been even worse, but they were unharmed.)

Check that: I didn’t suspect anything. I didn’t do an intensive cost-benefit analysis after the first punch. I got punched and all this happened sort of semi-consciously as I was getting punched, and afterward I was able to go back and reverse-engineer what I think led to me being willing to get punched in the face: when I got punched, I wasn’t very afraid; if I wasn’t afraid, I must have noticed things about him that led me to not be afraid. And yet, I was getting punched, so whatever I was willing to protect over and above my face must have had some value to me.

In other words, it was impulsive, risky, even dangerous, but there was a logic underneath that impulse. Or, in the words of the authors, “automatic behavior can give the appearance that someone lacks self-control or emotional intelligence in some situations… the key to our explanation is that these behaviors are adaptive in some situations but not in others.”

And that’s the logic behind Becoming a Man’s cognitive-behavioral approach:

To illustrate how this can potentially create problems, consider two kinds of situations that youth face: “school life” and (for lack of a better term) “street life.” In both situations, youths have to deal with assertions of authority. Teachers assert authority in school life by asking them to sit down or be quiet. In street life, someone much larger could assert authority by demanding money or their phones.

For a middle-class youth, the adaptive response in both cases is to comply. In school, they should do what the teacher says. On the street, they should hand over the phone, but then go tell an authority figure. For disadvantaged youths, school life also demands compliance. But street life is different. In places where formal social control is weak, it can be adaptive to develop a reputation as someone who will fight back when provoked to deter future victimization. Handing over money or a phone would send a signal to others of weakness and a willingness to comply with almost any request. For disadvantaged youths, assertions of authority in street life demand resistance, not compliance.

What I did was arguably stupid—I did, after all, get punched in the face a lot, and my instinct about my assailant could have been wrong. The safest thing, obviously, would have been to comply. With hindsight, I probably should have complied; even though I was right, I feel silly in retrospect trying to avoid the harm of having to replace a piece of paper. But like I said, the cost of resisting seemed less great than the cost of complying, even in this relatively picayune frame. I certainly had no exposure to the Code of the Streets, more like the code of the rural routes. But all of us, no matter where we are, are running these cost-benefit evaluations all the time. Above all, the point of BAM is to be conscious of it.

It reminded me of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Beyond the Code of the Streets,” in which he similarly reverse-engineers a decision he made against his instincts to not get into a fight:

We grew up in communities — New York, Baltimore, Chicago — where the Code of the Streets was the first code we learned. Respect and reputation are everything there. 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 protection increases when you are part of a crew with that same mind-set. This is obviously not a public health solution, but within its context, the Code is logical.

Outside of its context, the Code is ridiculous. Some years ago, I attended a reading by a black male author. There was a large crowd who’d come to hear him. A rowdy group in the back refused to give him their attention. He asked for it, quite nicely, a few times, but they paid him no heed. I could see the anger rising in his face, as the old laws worked on him. He was being disrespected. Again. Finally the author said loudly and menacingly, “Don’t let the suit fool you.” But it was the streets that had fooled him. Most tough guys don’t live long enough for memoirs.

(This is not a coincidence, by the way; both Coates, and Heller and her co-authors, cite the sociologist Elijah Anderson.)

And the authors are quite explicit about recognizing the logic behind what Coates calls “the Code": “Importantly, automaticity does not predict that BAM youths will unconditionally suppress aggressive or retaliatory responses, because these programs do not tell youth what their responses should be (‘fight’ or ‘don’t fight’). Instead these programs help youths more deliberately choose what they feel is the appropriate response.”

Besides describing a trial run of a potentially effective intervention, the paper is also a glimpse at how social science works: moving backward from lived experience to quantitative experiments. And by illuminating these logical pathways, the effects could be broader than the trial subjects—not just teaching them how to think more slowly about their behavior, but teaching others how to think more slowly about it too.


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