“I Don’t Know What You’ve Done With My Husband But He’s a Changed Man” (Ep. 220)

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(photo: Ken Harper)

(photo: Ken Harper)

Our latest Freakonomics Radio episode is called “I Don’t Know What You’ve Done With My Husband, But He’s a Changed Man.” (You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes or elsewhere, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript, which includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.) The gist: from domestic abusers to former child soldiers, there is increasing evidence that behavioral therapy can turn them around.

As we learned in last week’s episode, a simple and inexpensive program to reduce crime in Chicago has had remarkable results. At-risk teenagers who undergo a short series of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) sessions are less likely to get arrested and more likely to stay in school.

But could CBT also help criminals well into their adulthood? How about if their history of violence goes back to their time as child soldiers in a gruesome civil war? In this episode, we explore that seemingly unlikely proposition — along with a few other scenarios in which behavioral therapy seems to work well.

Klubosumo Johnson Borh, a former Liberian rebel commander who now tries to steer former child soldiers away from lives of crime and poverty.

Klubosumo Johnson Borh, a former Liberian rebel commander who now tries to steer former child soldiers away from lives of crime and poverty.

We hear from Klubosumo Johnson Borh, who as a Liberian teenager was recruited into Charles Taylor‘s notoriously brutal rebel army. Borh was made a commander, overseeing fighters who were even younger than him. “Child soldiers were always used … to torture,” Bohr says. “Even if there was a case wherein such a person needed to be executed, you always would want to use child soldiers to do that.”

By the end of Liberia’s two civil wars, nearly 10 percent of the population had been killed, and thousands of child soldiers were now men. Many of them couldn’t shake the violent behaviors they had learned in wartime. “The war was a form of virus,” Bohr laments.

Years after the war, Borh helped start an organization called the Network for Empowerment and Progressive Initiative (NEPI) to help former soldiers and other young men who were in trouble or heading for trouble.

As NEPI began to see results, Bohr began collaborating with Chris Blattman, a Columbia University economist and political scientist. Blattman wanted to see for himself exactly what NEPI was doing. What he found was that NEPI had accidentally stumbled upon CBT. It was teaching young men anger management and self-control, using the same kind of therapeutic and role-playing exercises used by other CBT programs like Becoming a Man, the Chicago program we discussed last week.

One element that Blattman (and his colleagues Julian C. Jamison and Margaret Sheridan) added to the Liberia intervention was a cash incentive — specifically $200, which goes a long way in Liberia, where the gross national income per capita is $400.

Blattman and Bohr conducted a randomized control trial of 1,000 men in Monrovia, Liberia’s capital, dividing them into four groups: those who received 1. just cash; 2. just CBT; 3. cash plus CBT; and 4. no intervention at all (the control group). Criminal behavior fell substantially in all groups receiving an intervention but after a year, it was those who got both CBT and cash who were still staying out of trouble. “All of these things we call antisocial behaviors like aggression, and cheating, and things of this nature, and everyday violence, those were still down a lot, by about 40 or 50 percent in the groups that received both cash and therapy,” Blattman tells us. (He and his colleagues published their results in a paper called “Reducing Crime and Violence: Experimental Evidence on Adult Noncognitive Investments in Liberia.”)

Between the evidence from Liberia and Chicago, there is mounting evidence that CBT has the potential to be a solution to all sorts of problems that have traditionally proven difficult (and expensive) to fight. And there is further evidence from coastal England. In this episode, we meet Heather Strang, research director at Cambridge University’s Institute of Criminology. She has been studying a program that fights domestic violence. By directing low-level offenders into just two behavioral-therapy workshops, the program achieves a 40 percent reduction in repeat incidents. As one abuse victim reported, “I don’t know what you’ve done with my husband but he’s a changed man.”

We also speak with Simon Ruda, of the Behavioral Insights Team, a quasi-governmental unit based in London that applies behavioral-science findings to public policy—everything from tax collection to crime prevention. (It also known as the Nudge Unit, after the book Nudge  by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein.)

And we revisit Walter Mischel‘s famous marshmallow test, and ponder a related question: would a simple, handwritten message on a holding cell wall deter its occupant from committing more crimes?

In the end, Stephen Dubner posits that all these results may suggest that the way we think about crime and punishment generally is perhaps wildly, hopelessly outdated. That maybe, for criminals who tend to be written off as lost causes, there is an alternative. “There’s been an assumption that adults are no longer malleable,” Chris Blattman says, “and we need to throw adults under the bus and put all our social spending into preschoolers to have a better future generation rather than say these guys can actually change.”


Paul

Love your podcast, but OMG I hate your player! Every time I try to scrub back to catch something someone said, it resets to the beginning! Grrr

Sam Williams

You mentioned a future episode on crime and punishment. I was recently visiting the UK and ate at a rehabilitation restaurant called The Clink. It's a really interesting experiment on the Correctional part of prison and I'd love to hear your take on it.

Allison

I would be interested in knowing the difference in crime rates between a place where police officers walk around and know the neighbors vs. places where police only respond in dire circumstances.

In the former scenario, does it improve the likelihood of someone calling police to de-escalate a situation before it gets out of hand? Does it reduce the likelihood of a fatality or a serious injury? In the latter, are people more untrusting of the police? Are there more crime-related fatalities and serious injuries?

Jay

As I was listening to this episode, I kept hearing the obvious response in my head: “You can’t give money and therapy to criminals! You’re coddling them when they deserve to be in jail! We need to be tough on crime!” It seems I’ve heard from you and many other sources that prisons don’t rehabilitate offenders and that CBT programs actually can. What I want to hear now is the best case for the other side. What are the costs of being “soft on crime”? What are the success stories from places that cleaned up the streets with more arrests and more jail time? Who benefited? The victims? The community? The police? The law-and-order politicians seeking reelection? I hope you can find some interesting conflict here, and explore beyond the common trope of "here's this great social program that's proven effective, now if we could only get the government to implement it!"
Thanks for a great show.

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Sarah Bella

Amazing blog post with useful information. Keep posting such a informative content in future.

Rochelle

Very interesting findings. There is hope for child soldiers and for intimate partner abusers. Is there any data regarding cognitive based therapy and our elected officials? Can we use cognitive based therapy to improve their cooperation and improve their governance performance?

Overseer76

A police episode? How about spotlighting the difference between the police (a peace-keeping force) and the military (a war-making force)? Because the advent of armored vehicles, assault rifles, sleek black tactical armor and the stereotypical modern officer having a physique akin to a professional bodybuilder all seem to contribute to a law enforcement culture that is comfortable with that line of distinction being blurry.

Or at least that's how it seems from my couch. (Safe at home where constabulary 'roid rage can't get me.) :-P

Julie Duhigg

Thoroughly enjoy this program and most of this episode but found myself sighing toward the end as Stephen Dubner made the following comment: "When someone gets in a fight or beats up a spouse or kills someone it's generally because they've lost control. They've made a rash and poor decision". Regarding intimate partner violence this is deemed inaccurate. Indeed the perpetrator is typically exercising an extreme level of control and is can be quite calculating. Controlling where the violence occurs, when it occurs, with whom it occurs, how it occurs, etc. And CBT interventions may well guide the awareness necessary to change such behavior. Meantime, please stop perpetuating this inaccurate perception of violent behavior.

Scott Ruffner

At the end of the episode you talked about doing future episodes on the purpose of police and by extension, I guess, to some extent the purpose of the whole criminal justice system. I'm not sure how to express this question well, but economically, I think it amounts to: how do we put a price tag on retribution?

Clearly in "revealed preferences" there is a strong preference for punitive, retributive responses for a lot of societal issues. In keeping with the notion of incarceration being a comparatively inefficient (more expensive, less effective) way of handling say, drug users, a lot of people nevertheless express a preference for the more expensive option of punishment. In fact, there's a lot of "older son" anger towards prodigals, even if extracting vengeance ultimately costs the older son more. People will spend more money to make sure a free rider doesn't get a free ride than the cost of the free ride. What's the economic evidence in favor of this approach?

It seems to me that gets at the essence of the police being a militaristic, punitive force, rather than a peace keeping force. The police as constituted today put the emphasis on the stick, eschewing the carrot. The debate over the use of Narcan is a wonderful example of this.

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