DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Police departments and community groups are always looking for ways to reduce crime. Much of the time though their success is not measured scientifically, so we don't really know what works and what doesn't. Well, at the University of Chicago, researchers actually tested a crime intervention and they found something pretty interesting. To tell us about it, we're joined by NPR's Shankar Vedantam who comes by regularly to tell us about new social science research. Shankar, welcome back.
SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Hi, David.
GREENE: OK. So tell us, this is the city of Chicago. I mean, it's a city that has really struggled recently to reduce crime. What are these researchers up to?
VEDANTAM: Well, the researchers first decided to explore how homicide actually takes place and to see if the way it takes place lines up with our intuitions. So Harold Pollack at the University of Chicago, he conducted what he calls social autopsies on every youth homicide that took place in the city of Chicago in a year. And what he found was that murder doesn't happen the way we think it happens or they way it happens on the "The Sopranos" or "The Wire."
You know, it usually isn't premeditated or aimed at getting something or settling a score. I spoke with Jens Ludwig. He's the director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab. Here's how he described it to me.
JENS LUDWIG: Most serious violent events are almost Seinfeld-ian in their origins. Someone saying something stupid to someone else and that escalating and basically turning into a tragedy because someone happened to have a handgun in their waistband at the time.
GREENE: I guess one unresolved debate in the country is whether or not taking the gun out of the hand of this person would prevent this tragedy from happening.
VEDANTAM: So, sure, David. I mean, the whole debate about gun control is a big debate, but Pollack and Ludwig and their colleagues decided to try a different intervention that was aimed at how these kids think. So they ran an experiment with about 2,800 kids from grades 7 to 10, all drawn from high-crime areas. Half of them went through a program that was designed to help the kids to stop and think, and half did not.
And when they finished the program they found that the arrest rates for the kids who went through the program dropped by 44 percent.
GREENE: What exactly were they being taught? What's the intervention?
VEDANTAM: So it really is a form of psychotherapy that people call cognitive behavior therapy. And the idea is you need to stop and think about the way you think. And I'm actually going to give you an example, David. This actually comes from one of the interventions that they did with these kids. I brought in a granola bar into the studio right now.
GREENE: Thank you for that.
VEDANTAM: And I have it in my fist. And let's say you want this granola bar. How would you get it out of me?
GREENE: I would say, Shankar, hi, I'm kind of hungry right now. I wouldn't mind having that granola bar if you're not going to eat it yourself.
VEDANTAM: Here you go, David.
GREENE: Hey, thank you. I appreciate that.
VEDANTAM: Here's the thing. Not one of the kids who went through this program ever thought of doing what you just did.
VEDANTAM: So they way they played this game, the kids were trying to get a ball out of a partner's hand and when they were told that the partner had it in his fist, they went after the partner and they fought for the ball and they brawled over it. And after about five minutes of this, the program leader stopped them and asked them a question. And here's how Jens Ludwig explained it to me.
LUDWIG: Why didn't you ask the other kid to give you the rubber ball? And then the kids will say things like, oh, if I would've asked, he would have thought I was a punk. Then, the group leader will turn to the partner and say what would you have done had this other kid asked you to give him the rubber ball? And usually the kid will say I would have just given him the rubber ball. What do I care?
GREENE: So it's a way of helping these kids understand that they're not going to be perceived necessarily the way they think they will be.
VEDANTAM: Exactly. I mean, so the central idea of cognitive behavior therapy is that there are these unconscious patterns to our thinking that when we expect an interaction to be hostile, we're going to be very aggressive coming into the interaction. So the goal is to train kids to slow down, not to leap to conclusions, to question your own assumptions.
You know, and I have to give you credit, David, because you didn't leap to the assumption that I was going to be resistant in giving you the granola bar.
GREENE: We didn't brawl in the studio. That's a good thing.
VEDANTAM: But I have to tell you there's also good news and bad news here, David. The good news is the intervention was very successful, but the bad news is one year after the program ended, the arrest rates of the kids who went through the program was no different than the arrest rates of the kids who didn't go through the program.
GREENE: Oh, that's sad. So is there some way to basically extend the success here?
VEDANTAM: So I think they're going to test different interventions, David. But Ludwig told me that even in just the year of the program, the benefits of the program far outweighed the costs. And not just in financial terms, but in long-term human terms. You know, someone at the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center told him, look, 20 percent of the kids who are here probably need to be here because they're dangerous.
For 80 percent of the other kids, they're here because of a single incident. If I could give them back 10 minutes of their lives, they wouldn't be here because they could make a different choice in that 10 minutes. And that's what this kind of program's designed to achieve.
GREENE: Shankar, really interesting. Thanks for coming in.
VEDANTAM: Thanks, David.
GREENE: That's Shankar Vedantam. He regularly joins us to talk about interesting social science research. You can follow him on Twitter @hiddenbrain. And while you're doing that you can also follow this program @morningedition and @nprgreene.
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