Economist: Possible to reduce crime among young men by means of behavioral science

Program based on behavioral science leads to young men committing fewer crimes and spending more time at school. This type of program is also more cost-effective from a socio-economic perspective compared to many other preventative measures. This is shown by influential American professor Jens Ludwig in a new SNS report.

SNS Research Brief 100. Using Behavioral Science to Reduce Crime and School Dropout 134.8 KB PDF

Crime prevention efforts typically consist of social interventions. However, in a few large American pilot programs, the focus has instead been on how young people make decisions. Thousands of teenage boys from disadvantaged neighborhoods received training to improve their ability to reflect on their behavior, control anger and make decisions.

There is a clear effect when outcomes are compared to other teenage boys who did not receive such training. Participants were subject to fewer arrests and committed much fewer violent crimes. At the same time, they spent more time at school and exhibited a higher graduation rate.

“These interventions were not only effective but also quite cheap. Depending on how we measure the cost of crime, the social benefit is between five and thirty times the cost of these programs,” according to Jens Ludwig, professor of economics at the University of Chicago.

He also believes that similar interventions in Sweden might be particularly successful.

“Compared to other countries, Sweden has come a long way in its efforts to use social interventions to prevent crime. It may thus be more cost-effective to invest in programs based on behavioral science than to spend more money on traditional crime prevention measures,” says Jens Ludwig.

on the pilot programs

Three major pilot programs involving elements of cognitive behavioral therapy aimed at preventing crime have been carried out in the United States. Two of these were carried out in schools in economically disadvantaged and segregated areas in 2009–2010 and 2013–2014, while a third was carried out at a youth detention center in 2009–2011. The randomly assigned participants were boys in their mid-teens, and the programs were designed to enable measuring causal effects. The boys were engaged in various ways from group assignments and discussions to roleplaying and exercises aimed at controlling anger. In addition to becoming less prone to commit crimes as well as spending more time at school, the boys receiving the program also became more reflective than the boys in the control group. In one exercise, for example, program participants on average spent 80 percent more time considering how to act in a stressful situation compared to the control group.

about the author

Jens Ludwig is the Edwin A. and Betty L. Bergman Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago, Pritzker Director of the University of Chicago’s Crime Lab, codirector of the Education Lab, codirector of the National Bureau of Economic Research’s working group on the economics of crime, and an elected member of the USA’s National Academy of Medicine.

A large portion of Ludwig’s research concerns efforts to prevent gun violence. Through the Crime Lab, he collaborates with decision-makers across the United States with a focus on how social, behavioral and computer science may offer cost-effective methods aimed at preventing crime. Ludwig’s research has been published in several leading academic journals.