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Thinking, Fast and Slow? Some Field Experiments to Reduce Crime and Dropout in Chicago (WP-15-27)

Sara Heller, Anuj Shah, Jonathan Guryan, Jens Ludwig, Sendhil Mullainathan, and Harold Pollack

This paper describes how automatic behavior can drive disparities in youth outcomes like delinquency and dropout. The researchers suggest that people often respond to situations without conscious deliberation. While generally adaptive, these automatic responses are sometimes deployed in situations where they are ill-suited. Although this is equally true for all youths, disadvantaged youths face greater situational variability. This increases the likelihood that automaticity will lead to negative outcomes. This hypothesis suggests that interventions that reduce automaticity can lead to positive outcomes for disadvantaged youths. The researchers test this hypothesis by presenting the results of three large-scale randomized controlled trials (RCTs) of interventions carried out on the south and west sides of Chicago that seek to improve the outcomes of low-income youth by teaching them to be less automatic. Two of their RCTs test a program called Becoming a Man (BAM) developed by Chicago-area non-profit Youth Guidance; the first, carried out in 2009–10, shows participation improved schooling outcomes and reduced violent-crime arrests by 44 percent, while the second RCT in 2013–14 showed participation reduced overall arrests by 31 percent. The third RCT was carried out in the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center (JTDC) in 2009–11 and shows reductions in return rates of 21 percent. The researchers also present results from various survey measures suggesting the results do not appear to be due to changes in mechanisms like emotional intelligence or self-control. On the other hand, results from some decision-making exercises they carried out seem to support reduced automaticity as a key mechanism.

Sara Heller, Assistant Professor of Criminology, University of Pennsylvania

Anuj Shah, Assistant Professor of Behavioral Science, University of Chicago

Jonathan Guryan, Associate Professor of Human Development and Social Policy and Faculty Fellow, Institute for Policy Research, Northwestern University

Jens Ludwig, McCormick Foundation Professor of Social Service Administration, Law, and Public Policy; and Director, University of Chicago Crime Lab, University of Chicago

Sendhil Mullainathan, Robert C. Waggoner Professor of Economics, Harvard University

Harold Pollack, Helen Ross Professor, School of Social Service Administration, University of Chicago

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