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.


The CDC reported research in 2014, "Black dads are more involved with their kids on a daily basis."

Daniel Crist

The fist/bottle exercise was quite interesting. And the same sort of game is used in a team-building activity called "Red-Chip, Blue-Chip." Teams are given a set of rules and a table of pay outs when each team plays a red or blue chip, which they decide to play in secrecy. All payouts involve money being lost by one of multiple teams and given to another, unless all teams play the blue chip. Then every team gets a payout. In the second round, they allow the teams to negotiate, and even then it's quite rare for teams to come up with the "all blue chip" conclusion because they are all thinking about beating the other teams by sabotaging each other with red chips. Although, at no point in the game is it mentioned that the teams are competing.


Question, if the fist exercise told the other group in secret to open the fist would they ask?

Cos I'm thinking that they at least would. The only reason why they don't ask is they assume (probably correctly) that their partner won't open the fist. Yes the goal wasn't not to keep the fist closed, but give a challenge to somebody the other will try and hinder. But if in secret the person closing the fist would be clueless on what the other is doing.