Chicago Leaders Use Cognitive Behavorial Therapy To Combat Violent Crime
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Seven hundred sixty-six. That's how many people were murdered in Chicago last year. The city's on pace to match that number this year. Plenty of community organizations are looking for ways to stop the violence. NPR's social science correspondent, Shankar Vedantam, has the story of one program that's teaching young men how to change the way they think.
SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Think about the last time you were really, really angry. Did you lose it, or were you able to keep your cool? For teenage boys in violent sections of Chicago, the question goes deeper. What does it take to keep your cool but also project toughness so people don't keep messing with you? For one group of kids, the answers lie in a group-therapy program at their high school. It's called Becoming a Man or BAM, and it's designed in part to help these teens pause and take a breath before acting. BAM sessions always begin with a check-in, and a brief summary of what's going on in everyone's life physically, intellectually, emotionally and spiritually.
CHEVONTE: My name's Chevonte (ph). And I'm checking in physically. I'm feeling good...
JAMES: All right. I'm checking in. My name's James. Physically, I got...
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: Physically, I'm tired. I didn't get that much sleep last night - carrying boxes all night.
CHEVONTE: Intellectually, I've been thinking about this math test on Friday. I've been studying hard to push my C up to a B.
VEDANTAM: The check-in takes a long time. But BAM counselor Larry Potts says these kids need space to be heard and, most of all, to feel that someone has their back.
LARRY POTTS: That's one of the things that we really value here in our groups - is to gain the trust of people. Teachers come to this school all the time. Principals come to the school all the time. And they're gone. And the kids know this. And they have no one they can depend on every day.
VEDANTAM: After the check-in, the young men take part in a group exercise that helps them develop social and cognitive skills. On this day, they do a trust walk. One student closes his eyes and is led around various obstacles in the classroom by a partner.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: Hold on. We're going to wait. We've got a little bit of traffic ahead of us. OK. We're going to turn this way.
VEDANTAM: The young men who have their eyes closed start out tense. But, gradually, they relax as they walk around the classroom. Their partners, meanwhile, focus on protecting them. It's a forced kind of intimacy. But, very quickly, it becomes real. When it's over, there's a real sense of pride in the room.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #3: It felt good because I - it's fun doing it. But, see, I visualized the room before I did it. So I already knew all that. I felt the sunlight on my eyes. So I knew I was at a window. I smelled the pizza. I knew I was over here.
VEDANTAM: A few years ago, the BAM program caught the attention of Jens Ludwig and Harold Pollack, two researchers at the University of Chicago. They were studying the roots of violent crime in Chicago and had spent time reviewing medical-examiner records of city homicides. They found that many violent confrontations start over something trivial, a stolen coat or a careless insult. Pollack has interviewed young men in prison who tell him that regret comes almost as fast as anger.
HAROLD POLLACK: You know, very, very often, if they could only take back, you know, five minutes of their life, a lot of these kids - a lot of the people that are locked up - would have a very different life.
VEDANTAM: As Pollack and Ludwig puzzled over how such minor incidents could spiral out of control, they had a flash of insight. Teenage boys in Chicago are not the only ones who act without thinking. We all do it. Psychologists even have a term for this behavior, automaticity.
POLLACK: A lot of our thinking that we do in life is very scripted and is very automatic. And, you know, we couldn't go through life if we didn't have very quick reactions to things that we don't give a lot of thought to partly because it just takes too much time.
VEDANTAM: Could it be, Pollack and Ludwig wondered, that teaching young men to think before they act could be a solution to violent crime in Chicago?
JENS LUDWIG: Our hypothesis was if we can identify some promising intervention that could help people avoid some of these common kind of judgment and decision-making errors, then that might be helpful in reducing the violence problem.
VEDANTAM: Ludwig and Pollack wanted to test the hypothesis with BAM to find out if this low-budget program might be effective on a mass scale in combating crime. So they conducted a randomized, controlled study. For several years, they tracked kids who were in the BAM program, as well as other kids who were not in the program, a control group. When the researchers looked at their data, they found that BAM worked jaw-droppingly well. When teenagers were in the program, arrest rates plummeted by 44 percent. Here's Jens Ludwig.
LUDWIG: I fell off my chair when I saw the initial set of results indicating that the arrest rates for kids in the Becoming a Man program were 44 percent lower than the non-participants.
VEDANTAM: And there was more good news. BAM even helped with school.
LUDWIG: Kids were more likely to come to school. They were more likely to be enrolled at the end of the school year. They're less likely to have dropped out. And they are less likely to fail their classes.
VEDANTAM: But, sadly, there's a catch. The reduction in violence didn't stick once young men were done with BAM.
POLLACK: They are offending at the same rates as the control group after the program is over.
VEDANTAM: Pollack and Ludwig haven't pinpointed exactly why the lessons of BAM don't last after the program ends. But from one perspective, it makes complete sense. All of us need reminders of the same advice we've gotten in the past. Talk to someone when you're feeling down. Look at things in perspective. Think before you act. The challenge for these students is to figure out how to keep applying those lessons long after they leave the BAM classroom. Shankar Vedantam, NPR News.
CORNISH: Shankar Vedantam is the host of the Hidden Brain podcast.
(SOUNDBITE OF BADBADNOTGOOD SONG, "CONFESSIONS")