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

Listen now:
(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.”


I'm just wondering why all of these experiments were done in predominately black cultures (Chicago, countries in Africa). The whole series of crime and crime prevention seems to be a huge banner saying, "Black teens and men need to be reformed because they're the only violent race on earth". This isn't a diss on this show since you were only reporting what the researchers have found but I'm really curious why these same researchers didn't consider maybe going to the UK (they have violent teens, no?) or Canada for their studies; why do they focus on predominately black areas?


My job as an outdoor instructor and social worker has made me think about the questions posed by Stephan at the end of this episode quite often. Prevention is by far and away the most effective way of dealing with so many of societies problem, but the issue is that people are too afraid to spend money on something that can't be absolutely proven. And while yes, you can through extensive research, as shown in this episode, that something is likely working using a control group, there is no way to know if a specific person would have committed a crime if he/she had not been in the program.

Everything costs money, programs and the research they need. Even if it could technically save you money to implement the programs, the money saved will likely be down the road. Because tax payers don't like spending, most opt only spend on "necessary" things, things that are problems now. In my job I know I'm making a difference in the lives of kids as I take them on expeditions where they backpack, camp, canoe, rock climb etc. They see themselves and their world in a different light, and even after a few days I hear their conversations reflect that. The groups of kids I work with who are considered at risk, talk about how they will make the changes they need in their lives, and finally have the confidence that it could happen. It is so hard to convince people who haven't experienced this that it is more then just "camp." How can we convince tax payers or donors to invest in society and receive social returns that mean less financial burdens later? Can we treat the non-profit world or government spending on social issues a little less on an outdated puritan belief that giving to social causes and capitalism are to always remain separate? Can we finally understand that we can risk investing on innovative social ideas and stand to gain from doing so. Why is is better to invest in a product then a cause?



The catch here is that if you prevent a problem, a lot of people will refuse to believe that there ever was a problem to begin with. As for instance vaccinations, the massive amount of work done to prevent a Y2K disaster, and others that might be a bit too politically charged to discuss.

Average Random Joe

The same is true in reverse. You can say this action didn't fail because it didn't go far enough to succeed. Again, I am not going to list any but most if not all ideologies pull this again and again.


What was the music used in this podcast? I really liked it and would love to hear more.


what is that music around 12 minutes??

Kazuo todd

I wanted to comment on the end of this podcast, and the discussion about police preventing crime. I work in prevention for a fire department, the goal of which is to prevent fire. Much like police, the number of people in prevention is minimal, 1-5% of the staff in the United States. The reasons often come down to funding. If we prevent all fires/crime, then there is nothing to show for why we are funded. It is catch 22 situation. It is a related to why each government bureau tries to spend every dollar they have. Financial prudence is rewarded with a smaller budget the following fiscal year. Interestingly enough statistics in Great Britain over some of the prevention work they have been doing is very compelling. That said, I can't see Americans adopting it. Any way this was just my two cents.

Average Random Joe

Conversely, you aren't incentivized to actually prevent 100% so it will never be reached no matter the level of funding. No matter the prudence or the recklessness, the argument and situation will be the same. The problem with government control. Do it right, get less funding or ignored. Do it wrong, get more funding or ignored.

Steve Rollings

I have a question in regards to police, as mentioned at the end of this episode. I wonder if the lack of prevention training is anyway related to the amount of people being killed by our police. Our number is way higher than some other countries. Would more time preventing crime by police cause them to stop killing people? Deserving or not, should our police be killing those they're sworn to protect? Just curious if Freakonimics has an answer, I'm sure it'd be more entertaining and insightful than if I researched it myself. Haha


As a Police Officer, your comments make me cringe. You could also say, "Does the lack of crime prevention cause more people to put themselves in situations where Police Officers are forced to use deadly force in split-second, life-or-death situations?"

The Police are not able, nor will we ever be able, to "prevent" crime without the citizens joining in on that objective. What most people don't realize is that the deterrence is an incredibly overrated technique...bad people do bad things when the Police aren't looking (and often when we are looking believe it or not). Where does deterrence work? In neighborhoods filled with people who refuse to let criminals roam free and do what they want. There is a reason that crime is more rampant in the ghetto compared to upscale, wealthy neighborhoods...wealthy people refuse to allow criminals to destroy their neighborhoods. Yes, they also have the resources to do this but thats the answer to it all. Society deems what criminals are able to get away with...not the Police.



"life-or-death situations"? Like when one of you shoots someone in the back? Or a gang of you decide to club a handcuffed suspect? Or you decide to tackle an unsuspecting person because someone says he looks like a criminal?

As for "prevention", as Kazuo says above, if for some reason there isn't enough "crime" to fight, the police and their allies go out and find or make new "crimes", as for instance the New York City man killed by police for the "crime" of selling cigarettes.


Re: the questions at the end of the episode: You guys should definitely look into the police being used to create crime. One of the things that was a revelation to me from all of the reporting about St. Louis is about courts being used to fund local government, via petty fines. Enforcing these type of traffic and quality of life offenses is a choice, and choosing to enforce them via fines (as opposed to warnings) is also a choice. And when you issue the fines against poor people who can't pay, they accumulate, accrue additional court costs and fines, and finally wind up with warrants for arrests.

(This phenomenon is not confined to the urban poor, although it may be concentrated there. I was recently driving along Maryland's Eastern Shore, where the speed limit on the highways changes frequently and abruptly, and cops are sitting in speed traps to issue tickets, particularly for drivers with out of state plates.)

Why and how did this become a major funding source for these municipalities? Why aren't they using normal government funding sources like sales tax or income tax?


Average Random Joe

This is an age old revenue source for governments so this IS a normal funding source. Fines and penalties create less society backlash than taxes. We all get taxed so have a common target for our ire but you did something wrong to get that fine and better you than me. You should have followed the rules and are the only one to blame for that fine. I wonder as drugs become legalized and we have self driving cars that follow road laws, what will police forces and local governments do to make up those very large shortfalls.


It's worth mentioning that researchers revisiting the marshmallow test have been digging into the question of how the results are not so much related to individual willpower as to a child's sense of whether or not adults are trustworthy. See, for example, http://www.bloomberg.com/bw/articles/2012-10-17/what-does-the-marshmallow-test-actually-test. This definitely seems applicable in the other cases described in the podcast, and I'm sort of shocked that neither Stephen nor Chris brought that up.

Gustavo H

At the end of the podcast you asked for ideas about Prevention of Crime as opposed to Punishment of Crime.
It would be interesting to consider places like New Zealand (where I live) where Police officers are much more focused on prevention than punishment (compared with other western-style countries).

Some interesting topics to start with:
NZ Police officers do not carry guns (not sidearms, not in the patrol). Some argue that this removes the need for offenders to have guns, but is that true? Or is just the other way round, and police don't carry because offenders don't carry?
When they approach to a suspect/offender, their behaviour is courteous and almost friendly (despite being firm).
Is this "friendliness" driven by environment? (Low population with small cities, easy going life style, low poverty rates, so we're all friendly anyway, aren't we?).
Or is driven by training, and their behaviour modifies the overall reaction towards police: they're seen as (almost) friendly public servants, not aggressive punishers; and even if you're going to be arrested you know they're not going to go physical unless required, (they're not weak or meek) so you don't resist.
In any case, as an spin-off of NZPD, how the population and poverty rates affect violence overall?

if you are planning to do a chapter (or may be a series as you've suggested) about this topic, comparing with something radically different (within western-style societies) like NZPD would be an interesting exercise, and a trigger to challenge some broadly accepted pre-assumptions regarding violence and crime.

Love the podcast! Keep it up!



Jeff Anderson

I especially enjoyed this podcast. As a criminal justice lecturer at Sage College in Albany, New York I believe that cognitive behavioral therapy is underutilized. Probation departments and corrections agency are using some form of it for good results in reducing incidents of criminal behavior.

For your segment on roles for police, I would recommend the nine principles set out by Sir Robert Peel in 1829 for the London Metropolitan Police. The idea that the use of force by police hurts their status in the community and their peacekeeping role seems to speak to us today.

Average Random Joe

I agree that this was a good podcast but I just had the word "Ministry of Love" flash in my head the entire time. While it is good to teach people to control themselves, controlling them is a very fine line.