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How Can We Save Ourselves From Ourselves?

John List and Uri Gneezy have appeared on our blog many times. This guest post is part a series adapted from their new book The Why Axis: Hidden Motives and the Undiscovered Economics of Everyday Life. List also appeared in our recent podcast “How to Raise Money Without Killing a Kitten.”

It’s a late-September afternoon in 2009 and the students of Fenger High School on Chicago’s South Side are crossing a vacant concrete lot. Some live in the Altgeld Greens housing project. Others live in a part of Chicago’s rough Roseland neighborhood (also called “The Ville”).  Some of the students from these areas have developed fierce antipathies toward each other, though the groups are more like cliques than gangs.

As the teenagers cross the lot, a fight breaks out. Someone pulls out a cell phone and starts recording a video of 15 to 20 kids fighting. Around a minute into the video, someone discovers a couple of two-by-fours lying in the empty lot. Eugene Riley, sporting a red motorcycle jacket, takes one of the big pieces of wood from a pal and swings it like a baseball bat into the back of 16-year-old honor student Derrion Albert’s head.

“Dannnggg!” someone exclaims. Screaming and shouting, the kids start running—some towards the shouting, others away from it. Derrion tries to get to his feet but he is punched and kicked as someone shouts, “Oh my god, you guys!” Derrion attempts to protect his head. There’s a distraction, but eventually the camera pans back to Derrion. He’s on the ground, defenseless, staring blankly at the camera and at that moment he’s attacked again. Eventually his assailants flee and immediately the cameraman and others run up to Derrion.

Someone says, “Get up, son.” His friends pick him up and bring him into a community center adjacent to the empty lot. His friends scream his name, desperate for him to respond. Two minutes into the video, you finally hear a siren. Derrion died hours later.

It didn’t take long for the three-minute video of Derrion’s murder to reach the public—quickly becoming national news. The calls for action were fierce. Desperate to try something new to stop the violence Chicago Public School (CPS) students experience every year, the CEO of CPS, Ron Huberman, devised a plan to stop the killing and asked us to help.

His plan was to match the most at-risk students with a highly-paid advocate who, in Ron’s words, would “act as a part mentor, part truant officer, and part role model to the youths.” To get the project started, Ron asked the following question:  “Out of 700 schools and 400,000-plus students, how do we figure out who is most likely to run into trouble?” Together with Dana Chandler and Steve Levitt, we quickly developed a way to predict the CPS students most at-risk.  With the help of our list, Ron Huberman chose the 250 students most at risk.  These teens were the recipients of their own “Secret Service” agent for the rest of the school year.

After the school year, we found that at-risk students in the program were 1.41 percentage points less likely to be a victim of a shooting. The students that just missed the cut-off for our program? They too were less likely to be a victim of a shooting, but only by 0.1 percentage points. The design wasn’t truly random—after all, the goal was to predict the students most in need of help—so we can’t be sure that the effect of the program was robust, but the evidence is strongly suggestive.  Most importantly, the story shows that the economic science can go a long way if there is a willing partner to listen.

If you want to explore our world further, take the Why Axis Challenge: visit, post a photo of your copy of The Why Axis, and be entered to win prizes, including a meeting with Uri, John, and Freakonomics author Steven Levitt! Be sure to stay tuned for more posts to come, which will give a glimpse into more “undiscovered economics.”