Slower response to confrontation can slash violent crime arrests for some youth, new paper finds

The ability to think fast and respond quickly to a situation generally is considered advantageous and indicative of a nimble mind. But automatic responses, particularly among young, disadvantaged youth, often are used in ill-suited situations and can lead to violence and crime.

A new NBER working paper co-authored by Anuj Shah, a behavioral scientist at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, describes how automatic behavior drives disparities like delinquency and dropout rates between disadvantaged and affluent youth. Though responding to situations without conscious deliberation is common among all youth, according to Shah's research, disadvantaged youths face greater situational risk of negative outcomes when they use automatic responses.

"To illustrate how this can potentially create problems, consider two kinds of situations that youth face: 'school life' and 'street life,'" Shah explains. "In both situations, youths have to deal with assertions of authority. Teachers assert authority in school life by asking them to sit down or be quiet. In street life, someone much larger could assert authority by demanding money or their phones."

In these situations, the teenager in a poor area is not behaving any less automatically than the teenager in the affluent area. Instead the problem arises from the difference in contexts—and the fact that some contexts call for retaliation. In many situations, youth from disadvantaged circumstances face a higher cost of being automatic.

Shah and fellow researchers theorized that interventions that reduce automaticity could lead to positive outcomes for disadvantaged youths. They tested this hypothesis in three large-scale randomized controlled trials (RCT) of interventions carried out on the south and west sides of Chicago, seeking to improve the outcomes of low-income youth by teaching them to be less automatic.

Two of these RCTs test a program called Becoming a Man (BAM), developed by Chicago non-profit Youth Guidance. First, carried out in 2009-10, BAM shows participation improved schooling outcomes and reduced violent-crime arrests by 44%, while the second RCT in 2013-14 showed participation reduced overall arrests by 31%. 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%.

"The intervention is not about uniformly changing what the automatic responses are," according to Shah. "Instead, the challenge is to help youths learn when they need to not be automatic, to notice the situations where they ought to slow down and consider whether their automatic behaviors are useful for that situation."