The motto “think before you act” may be more powerful than people think.
In a working paper published by the US National Bureau of Economic Research this month, researchers found that a simple, cost-effective after-school program for Chicago high-schoolers focused on slowing down their decision-making process significantly lowered crime and dropout rates for participants and boosted school attendance.
The study analyzed the effects of a Chicago-based program by the organization Youth Guidance called Becoming a Man (BAM). The researchers invited 1,473 Chicago teens, chosen at random from 18 public schools, to participate in BAM programming and compared them to a control group of similar students who were not invited.
The goal of the program, explains coauthor Harold Pollack, a professor at the University of Chicago and the director of its Crime Lab, was to encourage less violent behavior by slowing their automatic response, rather than telling the students to be less violent. “If you tell the kids never fight, you’re basically saying don’t listen to anything else we’re going to say,” he tells Quartz.
In psychology, humans are thought to develop automatic responses to common situations to save time. For example, American teenagers from privileged backgrounds learn to automatically comply with authority figures, handing over their smartphone to a mugger, or quieting down when a teacher says so.
Low-income teenagers sometimes learn that submitting to authorities on the street isn’t necessarily the smartest or safest choice. For instance, handing over your wallet, instead of shielding you from further harm, may only invite more aggression.
Much of BAM’s training focuses on what is termed “positive anger expression.” Students learn simple breathing and meditation exercises—slowly exhale, count to four, control your thoughts—to help manage their emotions while making difficult decisions. They also run through exercises that teach the power of positive reactions. For instance, in an exercise where a participant is tasked with getting a ball from a peer in less than 30 seconds, the students learn that grabbing or stealing the ball is considerably less effective than politely asking to hand it over.
The study found that, based on monitoring the students for a year after the program, those assigned to participate in the BAM program were 44% less likely to commit violent crimes, and performed significantly better in an academic performance index that combines academic measurements including GPA, attendance rates, and dropout rates.
Pollack says the research shows there are easier ways to help reduce crime rates among low-income teens. Many people “believe that there are so many deeply rooted, chronic problems that we have to address before we can reduce the rate of violence and crime among young people,” Pollack says. But programs like these, he adds, can be “cost-effective, and a feasible part of a solution.”