If you’re driving and see a red light ahead, you hit the brakes.
That’s an example of automaticity, or an automatic response you have to a familiar situation. While stopping a car can keep you safe, other automatic responses can be dangerous—particularly for at-risk youth. Research suggests that teaching disadvantaged teens to recognize and counter their automaticity can help keep them in school and out of prison.
The six researchers—University of Pennsylvania’s Sara B. Heller, Chicago Booth’s Anuj K. Shah, Northwestern University’s Jonathan Guryan, Chicago Harris’s Jens Ludwig, Harvard University’s Sendhil Mullainathan, and University of Chicago’s Harold A. Pollack—write that automatic responses can be shaped by the situations we’re in, which in turn may depend on our socioeconomic group.
Consider two teenagers, one growing up in a middle-class neighborhood and the other in a disadvantaged one. Their automatic responses to figures of authority look different, which makes sense when you consider what is likely to be a stark contrast in their environments. A middle-class youth is likely to respond to authority figures, such as his teachers, with compliance, while an at-risk youth’s automatic response is likely to be retaliation.
For that at-risk youth, retaliation is a coping mechanism that may aid him on the streets but will harm him in the classroom. “Being told by a teacher to sit down and be quiet so class can start may at first glance feel like one’s reputation is at stake. This creates problems because in poor areas the response that is adaptive outside of school has negative consequences if deployed in school,” the researchers write.
But at-risk teens benefit from learning to act less automatically and instead assess situations and respond appropriately. The researchers looked at three large-scale interventions that aim to teach this kind of slow thinking. Two involved the Becoming a Man (BAM) program, offered in Chicago Public Schools, while the third was run at the Cook Country Juvenile Detention Center. The data from three randomized controlled trials suggest that such interventions can have drastic effects.
The first trial involved 2,740 young men in 7th through 10th grade in 18 public schools on the poorer south and west sides of Chicago. For one academic year, some teens were offered weekly, in-school sessions with BAM, where they learned to use techniques—including counting backward and deep breathing—that would help them act less automatically. Others participated in after-school sports where they learned some of the same techniques. The researchers find that during the program year, participation in BAM or related programs reduced arrests for violent crimes by 44 percent, and for other crimes by 36 percent. The BAM intervention, they estimate, could translate into graduation rate gains of up to 22 percent.
In a second trial involving BAM, focused on high schools, arrests fell by 31 percent. Using a game that provoked participants to retaliate against unfair behavior, the researchers also determined that BAM increased by 79 percent the time teens spent thinking before they acted.
A third trial, conducted at the juvenile detention center, reduced return rates to the center by about 21 percent, according to the study.
“These programs do not tell youth what their responses should be (‘fight’ or ‘don’t fight’),” write the researchers. “Instead these programs help youths more deliberately choose what they feel is the appropriate response.”
The interventions, they note, are distinct from other types of services that have been evaluated previously, including vocational education, job training, cash or in-kind transfers, and early childhood education. “The interventions we study look different from the most common strategies tried with disadvantaged youth, and seem to be more effective.”