Preventing Crime for Pennies on the Dollar (Ep. 219)

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(photo: Emilian Tiberiu Toba)

(photo: Emilian Tiberiu Toba)

Our latest Freakonomics Radio episode is called “Preventing Crime for Pennies on the Dollar” (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.)

Conventional crime-prevention programs tend to be expensive, onerous, and ineffective. Could something as simple (and cheap) as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) do the trick? That’s the question we try to answer in this episode. It’s set in Chicago, where violent crime continues to thrive (its homicide rate is more than triple New York’s). Chicago is also home to the Crime Lab at the University of Chicago, a network of researchers who try to find empirical solutions to crime and violence.

Some of those researchers have produced a remarkably interesting paper called “Thinking, Fast and Slow? Some Field Experiments to Reduce Crime and Dropout in Chicago.” You’ll hear extensively from the Penn criminologist Sara Heller (her co-authors include Jens Ludwig, Sendhil Mullainathan, and Harold Pollack). The title of the paper may sound familiar to you — it’s named after the landmark book by the psychologist Daniel Kahneman, which describes the two avenues of thought we all engage: System 1 (which is so fast and emotional as to be practically automatic) and System 2 (a more deliberative style).

What Heller and her colleagues wanted to know was whether a lot of criminal and other “maladaptive” behavior by troubled young men in Chicago was caused by too much System 1 thinking, too much “automaticity.” And if so, could that automaticity be disrupted by some simple behavioral interventions?

The researchers set out to measure the efficacy of a program called Becoming a Man. It’s run by a charismatic, up-from-the-streets psychologist named Tony DiVittorio. BAM is not about vocational training or academic support or cash incentives; it doesn’t require a long-term commitment or a lot of money. But, apparently, it works — as does a similar program in the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center that also uses CBT.

The conclusion of Heller et al. is quite startling: it would seem that, for all the billions of dollars spent on complicated anti-crime programs, something as simple and cheap as CBT seems more effective in reducing crime (and, not unrelatedly, keeping teenagers in school).

Along the way, you’ll also hear Steve Levitt talk about his efforts, on behalf of the Chicago Public Schools, to identify the students most in danger of being shot. (His paper, co-authored with Dana Chandler and John List, is called “Predicting and Preventing Shootings Among At-Risk Youth.”) Levitt is the first to admit that their methods weren’t all that great at predicting who would get shot — and that the CPS’s efforts to prevent shootings were even less effective.

If the research results of Sara Heller and her colleagues turn out to be reliable, this is very good news indeed for anyone who cares about crime (which is, presumably, just about everyone, especially would-be criminals). In next week’s episode, we follow another story of CBT-as-crime-prevention, but this time in Liberia.

Doug Vanhooren

I recently listened to this podcast, and I am a regular listener... it was particularly good timing, as I also recently have delved into the How to Rob a Bank section on crime, and was intrigued by the posts on how to reduce gun related crime.

Likely this idea was already presented, but in case it has not, I wanted to pose it for consideration.

What if guns were rendered an ineffective way to kill someone. Say for instance, a portion of the cost of regulating guns was successfully invested in technology and mass production of an everyday item that would render bullets harmless to the average person. For instance, bulletproof undershirts -- cheap Kevlar underwear for everyone!!! Suddenly it would be useless to carry a gun - No??

Just my late night thoughts.


Doug Vanhooren
Cranbrook, BC, Canada.


Then people would use knives, clubs, knapped flints, &c. Chimpanzees manage it with no firearms industry at all:


Great episode!

Scott P.

I listened to this podcast and like other Freakonomics podcasts found it interesting and educational, but the longer I listened, I became fascinated by the almost obtuse avoidance or measurement of the root cause of youth violence; the lack of intact families with the father living in the homes of these youth. Fatherless households with children is the main problem here, but you did not give this issue a mention. You danced around it a little by saying "lack of mentors" or "authority figure"s to these boys, but why not come out and directly address the issue as Freakonomics is supposed to do? You talked about common traits among these troubled boys like truancy, talking back to teachers and drop out rates, but these are symptoms of the larger problem; fatherless homes.

Single mother families have been incorrectly held up as heroes in the media and by the government. In broken families it takes two to not tango, so I blame the irresponsible fathers as well as the mothers, but because of political correctness, we can not judge. Judging means shame and this society has made judging and shaming not politically correct. It used to be taboo or shameful to have children out of wedlock, but our society has become more and more narcissistic and through the thought police of politcal correctness we have become blind to what is best for society; intact families.

Freakonomics will usually break down the wall of commonly held societal beliefs, but I guess fatherless families is too controversial a topic to broach, much less measure and discuss at length, even for Freakonomics. This is disappointing.



I think you're assuming your conclusion about the "root cause" here. Where's the data?

Further, I suspect that if you had fathers/mentors who were products of a youth violence culture, they would be teaching their children the values of that culture. Or any other culture: football fans teach their children to play football; religous fundamentalists take their kids to church, temple, or mosque; college grads teach the value of education...

Scott P.

"Where is the data?" is what I am asking Freakonomics to run! They did not run data on whether these at risk kids came from a fatherless home, but a quick Google search of "how many prison inmates come from broken families" brings up a few articles including at the top of the list "70% Of Criminals Are From Broken Homes, Expert Says".

All of the CBT treatments and mentorships are great and are needed to help these troubled kids become better citizens and better men, but these treatments are there to replace what is missing in these kid's lives, fathers.

You state that fathers who are a product of youth violence will teach their children the same bad values and I would agree, but it is not as if these bad fathers where granted fatherhood on a random basis! Except in the case of rape, men are fathers by the choices made by women. Women should not have children with men that are not fit to become good fathers. This is called personal responsibility, a trait that is not held high enough.

Men and women prolonging the gratification of having children until they are fit to be good parents will be the path to a lot less crime on the streets. This is intuitive, but nobody said it would be easy. Life is not easy, but making better long term choices reduces one's obstacles to success. A strong society is built on intact families working hard and making good choices. Pop culture and government are not promoting these ideals and until broken families are again judged as a problem in this society, this problem of street crime in the inner-cities is not getting fixed.



The background music is way too loud and distracting. I wish I could comment more but I can't hear it.

Scott P

It is not morality that is driving the need for having more discussions about intact families in our society, but what is best for our society at large. Intact families function better and produce less criminal children, but stating this obvious truth requires judgment. I find it almost bizarre that this is a point of argument, but this is what political correctness has brought us. The word correct does not need a modifier. Let's lose "political correctness" for the better of all.


"Intact families function better and produce less criminal children..." Evidence, please? Your supposed "obvious truth" is neither, unless supported by it. As I pointed out above, I think that if you corrected for other environmental factors, you might not find that "intact families" have that much of an effect.

I think - and I admit this is just my opinion - that if you wanted to find the true causative factors, you would do better to look at the effects of urban crowding (for which there are animal models), the value or lack thereof placed on education (which offers a route out of the inner city), and perhaps most important of all, the immense financial, and consequent social, incentives for this sort of behavior that have been created by the so-called War on Drugs.


As always, I found this episode fascinating. Having lived in the Chicago area for a few years myself, it was deeply interesting to see the kinds of interventions that are being tried to bring down the crime in the city. That said, as I was listening to the description of the fist exercise, which was very smart way to make a point, I wondered if there is something to the way the instructions to the kids were framed. In that, the B kids were told to open the fists of the A kids. However, no instructions were given to the A kids. Were they to keep it shut at all cost, were they free to open it, would they have opened it if the B kids asked them to. When instructions tell you to open your partner's fist, the subtext to the kids with the closed fist is almost like a challenge. I don't think you need to be from a rough neighbourhood to react that way.

While I understand the point the exercise was trying to make and there is an insight moment when the kids see it in a different light, my point is there may be a whole different kind of psychological process going on that underpins the way the kids interpret the exercise, another kind of automaticity perhaps. I would be really interested to know if the researchers had looked into it.



Impressive results. Can CBT be used to encourage people to consume more consciously in regards to climate change and other environmental crises? For example could CBT be used to lead the masses toward energy conservation and local food?

Alex French
Sustainability Coordinator
Clarkson University


Marit Knapp

I think it would be really cool if you could do your upcoming podcast on crime with Sarah Koenig from Serial podcasts as a special guest. Serial deals with the question of how our justice system works, especially with the job of police: law enforcement officers versus officers of the peace. Looking forward to hearing the episode!


It would be very beneficial if this could also be used to help teens with other portions of their self image- I'm thinking of suicide prevention. Are you aware of anyone taking research in that direction?