Is the single best anti-crime investment behavioral therapy?

As in Liberia, in Chicago? Further evidence that behavioral therapy focused on emotional regulation, impulse control, planfulness, social skills, and positive self-image can have large effects on crime and violence. Mainly, it seems in many cases, through emotional regulation and impulse control.

This paper describes how automatic behavior can drive disparities in youth outcomes like delinquency and dropout. We 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.

We 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 our 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%, 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 22%.

We 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 we carried out seem to support reduced automaticity as a key mechanism.

A new paper by Heller, Shah, Guryan, Ludwig, Mullainathan, and Pollack.

Sorry but I do not know of an ungated copy. But a summary is here.

Research positions at the IRC

Following in my tradition of posting job announcements only on behalf of people that marry me, I present several new positions in the International Rescue Committee’s research department. It is growing, it’s the center of impact of evaluation in the humanitarian sphere, and you will have a great boss.

  1. R&D Director
  2. Deputy Director, Evidence to Action
  3. Deputy Director, Research
  4. Grants and Finance Coordinator
  5. Policy and Communications officer

Timely publications: “The Career Effects of Scandal: Evidence from Scientific Retractions”

…we investigate how the scientific community’s perception of a scientist’s prior work changes when one of his articles is retracted.

Relative to non-retracted control authors, faculty members who experience a retraction see the citation rate to their articles drop by 10% on average, consistent with the Bayesian intuition that the market inferred their work was mediocre all along.

We then investigate whether the eminence of the retracted author, and the publicity surrounding the retraction, shape the magnitude of the penalty. We find that eminent scientists are more harshly penalized than their less-distinguished peers in the wake of a retraction, but only in cases involving fraud or misconduct.

When the retraction event had it source in “honest mistakes,” we find no evidence of differential stigma between high- and low-status faculty members.

A new paper by Azoulay, Bonatti, and Krieger. Hat tip to Dina Pomeranz.

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.

  • In a story circulating widely now, Science journalist John Bohannon, explains how he planted a fake study in the news showing chocolate can help with weight loss. The study was really done, but “p-hacked” – they compared two diet groups (one including chocolate) to a control and measured lots of outcomes so at least one one would come out as statistically significant by chance, then published in a fee-for-publication journal and put out a press release about it, which several outlets picked up without asking any critical questions.

3 points:

-There may ethical questions around deliberately misleading the public, especially about health.

-None of the outlets who picked it up were particularly big names.

-Dean Karlan (in a very cursory glance), points out that they were already dieting and 1.5 oz of chocolate is very few calories, so having that outlet could have kept people from eating other sweets (as another study suggests). The findings were in weight loss, the area one would hypothesize, rather than other areas like sodium level, so the findings might actually be legit, which would be the greatest con of all.  (h/t Everybody.)

  • Psychologist Michael Inzlicht says that researchers have to start being honest with themselves about cherry picking findings, starting with himself. He subjects his own results to three tests anybody can do: First a “p-curve” which checks your results against a pre-set rule to see if your findings are consistently too good (paper and calculator here). He did OK there, but fared worse on the Test for Insufficient Variance (TIVA) which involves converting p values to z-scores (explained here), and Replication Index (or R-index) which tries to determine the probability a finding can be replicated using power and frequency of success rates across a series of studies. However supporting Chris’ Drama Queen rule, Inzlicht wasn’t alone:

Uli Schimmack … also reanalyzed a set of psychological studies appearing in Science, finding that they achieved a painfully low R-index of 33.9%. These low values raise concerns about the empirical support for the underlying articles.


  • A mystery phone without many features is taking Ghana by storm, entirely by word of mouth, according to Quartz. It’s bulky, ugly and doesn’t work well, but its main feature is “power banking” – a huge battery that lets people save up power and charge their other devices during frequent outages (there’s a mobile banking joke in there somewhere).
  • NPR looks at Somali refugees who’ve spent the past 24 years in a refugee camp in Kenya (the subject of a forthcoming book by Ben Rawlence). A generation has grown up there with western-style education and job training, and under rules designed to promote gender equality. Rawlence points out that in many ways they look more like a middle class than those still in Somalia. A group of the refugees were recently taken on a U.N.-sponsored visit back to Somalia and were unimpressed, according to the story.

And, from Ian Bremmer, who titles this “Theory vs. Practice”:


Links I liked

  1. Steven Lubet questions whether Alice Goffman’s On the Run is all true, and Alex Tabarrok’s impression that Lubet’s making mountains out of molehills. I lean to Alex’s impression and if I ever have the time will blog about Goffman’s book. [Edit: Have heard more tales of dubiosity from colleagues since I posted this and so will take some time to consider.]
  2. Did you register your social science experiment? This foundation wants to give 1000 of you $1000 as a reward. And BITSS at UC Berkeley wants to give up to $15,000 to scholars pushing the envelope of transparency teaching and research.
  3. A twitter bot that retweets people’s thoughts about their Uber drivers: @myuberdriverbot
  4. Dad, level 9000

How do people defend eating meat?

This study asked students and adults in the United States why they find it OK to eat meat.  The largest category used to justify their choice was that that it is “necessary” followed by the other three categories.

Typical comments used to justify eating meat include these 4Ns:

  • Natural “Humans are natural carnivores”

  • Necessary “Meat provides essential nutrients”

  • Normal “I was raised eating meat”

  • Nice “It’s delicious”

Article and academic paper.

Unfortunately, “marginal effect” does not begin with an N, because that would probably be my preferred response alongside “nice”.

In terms of environmental degradation I see a strong argument for reducing meat consumption, but surely the marginal benefits of going to zero meat are small compared to reducing some other environmentally unsound behavior on the margin. Such as transatlantic flights or certain types of energy-intensive food or travel.

The zero meat move makes more sense from a behavioral perspective, where we recognize we are frail and impulsive creatures. Vegetarianism lets you draw a bright red line not to cross. Otherwise it’s easy for you to slip in the moment and eat that bacon. It’s possible that, in practice, vegetarianism is easier to stick to than reduced meat consumption, and so you could pre-commit yourself.

My alternative, unwitting solution was to marry someone who does not eat red meat and hence never cook it at home. A commitment device. Literally!

You can also get to zero meat if you object to raising animals for slaughter for moral reasons. This is a way of saying that the one’s marginal cost of going from zero to a little meat consumption is very high. But I don’t feel that way. I do favor more reasonable treatment of animals and try to buy such meat. I’d personally prefer an equilibrium where everyone chooses this, and/or it’s regulated, because I think that would make the choice cheaper and more easily available, and is probably the right thing to do.

Vegetarian readers: I await your comments or objections.

The geek heretic

My first job abroad was helping to roll out rural Internet in India, by radio. It was 2001, the peak of the dot com boom, but before the ubiquity of mobile phones. Connecting remote villages in India to the Internet via radio waves was the great frontier, and I was hired to help roll it out and evaluate it.

Fifteen years later the idea of radio-based Internet seems quaint, but I recall Paul Samuelson telling one of the professors I worked for that he thought it was the most exciting idea he’d heard in years. Like I said, dot com boom. Unless you lived through it it’s hard to explain, but everybody was a little crazy when it came to the web those days.

The project was a debacle for more reasons I can recount in a blog post. A big one: relieving an information and communication constraint was not going to cause markets to surge or governments to become accountable. Even if that information mattered, any surge would come to a screeching halt with the dozen other greater constraints holding change back.

You could say I became a geek heretic. No longer would I believe that technology is the solution. It didn’t hurt that the stock market bubble was popping at the same time.

Many years later, I met Kentaro Toyama, a kindred spirit, but one who had gone to much further lengths and depths in his fervor for and against technology in development. The onetime director of Microsoft Research India, he’s just released his book, Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology:

For twelve years I worked at Microsoft, where, like every other gizmo-happy technologist, I unconsciously embraced a peculiar paradox. It revealed itself in the most innocuous things that the company said. At corporate gatherings, executives would tell us, “You are our greatest asset!” But in their marketing, they would tell customers, “Our technology is your greatest asset!” In other words, what matters most to the company is capable people, but what should matter to the rest of the world is new technology. Somehow what was best for us and what was best for others were two different things.

This book is about this subtle contradiction and its outsize consequences. I explore how a misunderstanding about technology’s role in society has infected us–not just the tech industry, but global civilization as a whole–and how it confuses our attempts to address the world’s persistent
social problems. Th e confusion expresses itself as Silicon Valley executives who evangelize cutting-edge technologies at work but send their children to Waldorf schools that ban electronics. Or as a government that spies on its citizens’ emails while promoting the Internet abroad as a bulwark of human rights.

One of the ideas in the book is that technology takes us only as far as our capabilities. A nice quote from Bill Gates sums it up:

The first rule of any technology used in a business is that automation applied to an
efficient operation will magnify the efficiency. The second is that automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency.”

If you find yourself even remotely optimistic about technology and development, you should read this book.

I have an idea for another get-out-the-vote experiment

An Arizona woman was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison for running over her husband because he failed to to cast a vote about who would spend the next four years in the White House.

Holly Nicole Solomon, 31, hit her husband, Daniel Solomon, and he suffered a fractured pelvis from being run over after a wild chase on November 10, 2012, that left him pinned beneath her Jeep.

Solomon was upset with the 36-year-old following the November 6 re-election of President Barack Obama and believed their family would ‘face hardship’ because he had won another term.

Full story. I expect Stanford to implement within the month.

If you want people to believe your research, write it in Baskerville font?

We have entered a new, unexpected landscape. Truth is not typeface dependent, but a typeface can subtly influence us to believe that a sentence is true. Could it swing an election? Induce us to buy a new dinette set? Change some of our most deeply held and cherished beliefs? Indeed, we may be at the mercy of typefaces in ways that we are only dimly beginning to recognize. An effect — subtle, almost indiscernible, but irrefutablythere. (“Mommy, Mommy, the typeface made me do it.”)

For every thousand respondents to the Times quiz, nearly five more people agreed with Deutsch’s statement when written in Baskerville’s typeface than they did when they read it in Helvetica. A typeface that nudges (to use the vernacular of experimental psychology) us to uncritical belief? Did Baskerville, despite his opposition to the irrationalities of religion, create a typeface that has a religious pull?

That is Errol Morris in the New York Times, in 2013. Fast Company covered the experiment last week.

While we are on the subject of transparency of methods, and sharing of data and code: has anyone replicated this? Getting the data and scrutinizing it strikes me as a great term paper for a PhD student.

What should social science learn from the faked Science study on gay marriage?

Not much.

If you haven’t heard about the article, the apparent fraud, and the aftermath, follow the links. The duped coauthor, Don Green, speaks to New York Magazine here. It’s a great interview.

My view: Asking what social science should learn is like asking how we reform corporate governance after Apple’s accountant steals $2 million. After the audit firm caught him.

Actually, paying attention to such fraud is a harmful distraction. This kind of blatant fraud is rare. What concerns me is that every other paper, as far as I’m concerned, massages its data until it fits a nice story. Those that don’t are less likely to get published in the best journals. This is true of everything from ethnography to experiments.

According to my “drama queen” rule, the journal Science is worse than some. The rule is simple: if a journal issues press releases and embargoes work for the biggest news splash, take it less seriously. Gratefully political science and economics journals do not do this.

Some other rules of thumb I use: Real data never look perfect. Large results are usually wrong. And scholars who have big splashy result after splashy result have a huge file drawer full of papers with null results. Discount their work.

But saying we shouldn’t learn much from this episode doesn’t mean we learn nothing at all. Here are a few points I take away:

  • The production of knowledge is changing, with teams of researchers on bigger projects. We all have to trust our coauthors not to make mistakes or be sloppy. Probably we all trust a little too much, and are too lazy in checking each others work. Especially work by our least experienced coauthors.
    • Social science probably needs to move to a slightly lower “trust equilibrium” to do good work, even if that means fewer projects and findings.
    • This balance is going to be trickiest for the senior scholars who foster dozens of studies and students. The people who do this are delivering a huge good to the world by apprenticing so many people, and producing so many great social scientists. But it comes with risks. I don’t know the right balance.
  • Fields and methods that are more transparent will get bitten by more discoveries of malfeasance. Do not penalize them for this, or you mess up incentives even more.
    • I have heard snide remarks about field experiments over this incident. The virtue of experimental work is that there are strong norms of describing replicable methods, and sharing data and code. Arguably this makes it easier to discover problems than with ethnography or observational data. Indeed it did, in just weeks.
    • The conversation worth having is how norms of data sharing and replicability can be extended to all kinds of empirical work.
  • This episode reinforces what I tell my students: your reputation for careful, conscientious work is everything in this business.
    • Don’t undermine it by hiding your study’s weaknesses, massaging results, or keeping null results in the file drawer. Even if the journals penalize the current paper, your reputation will be enhanced, because people notice.

In the interests of full disclosure, I have some biases: I run lots of field experiments; foster grad student coauthors; consider Don Green a friend, colleague and mentor; and (last but not least) stole $2 million from Apple but didn’t get caught.

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.

And your bonus: Listen to Wikipedia is sublime, best with headphones (h/t Aaron D.)

These weak states of America (aid and corruption edition)

A special treat for my sky-is-falling-from-corruption nemeses.

An excerpt from an ODI briefing paper on risks involved in using cash in humanitarian emergencies:

The largest documented case of fraud in a humanitarian program providing money is from the United States. In the wake of Hurricanes Rita and Katrina, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) quickly provided aid through the Individuals and Households Program, which provided money for housing and immediate needs.

As of February 2006 more than 2.6 million payments were made totalling over $6 billion. The US Government Accounting Office estimated $1 billion of these payments were fraudulent from bogus claims and double registration (GAO, 2006).

Help me stop being an Africanist? (Colombia bleg)

I’m ready for a change of scenery, so I plan to spend several weeks in Colombia this summer looking for new research ideas and opportunities.

I always thought of myself as a political economist who happened to work in Africa rather than an Africanist. I still plan to work south of the Sahara, including a new project or two in Kenya. But I’m ready to shake things up a little bit. I’ve dusted off my 15-year old Spanish books and the lessons have begun anew.

The whole family is going. We have a beautiful home exchange for the last week of July and first week of August in Bogota, plus an office at Universidad de los Andes. Then two weeks holiday.

I welcome advice for both work and play. Jeannie and I went in 2009 and you gave us some good advice. So I am coming back for more.

Holiday-wise, we haven’t even begun to explore options, and so we’re wide open to suggestions. We will have a 2- and 4-year old in tow, so the ideal situation is to visit two places for a week each, and use each as a home base for day trips and exploration. We were thinking maybe Medellin and then the coast, but really have not thought it through yet. Are there places of historical/conflict interest that are now family-friendly? FARC’s Wonderland?

Research-wise, I’ve been thinking about a few different directions:

Suggestions of interesting people or programs or organizations are welcome.

These weak states of America (Waco edition)

A new series, to remind us that the developed world is not as distant from the rest as we’d like to think. From yesterday’s New York Times:

The gunfire erupted about 12:15 p.m. outside a Twin Peaks Restaurant, where members of the motorcycle clubs had gathered. The fight spilled into the parking lot, initially involving just fists and feet, but escalating quickly to chains, knives, clubs and firearms. Waco police officers were already at the scene when the confrontation unfolded because they had anticipated problems as hundreds of bikers from at least five groups gathered at the shopping plaza.

My take on how the New York Times would have written this up, had it been a poorer country:

Rival militias exchanged deadly fire in Waco, a remote area of Texas, the former stronghold of the militarized spirit group known as the Branch Davidians. The hostilities initially involved just fists and feet, but escalated quickly to chains, knives, clubs and firearms. Police officers were present at the scene when the confrontation unfolded, and opened fire on the combatants. No foreign nationals were injured at the scene.

The new Peace & Recovery program at Innovations for Poverty Action

The mission is “Evidence for Stability and Development” and I will be the new academic lead.

In the coming decades, most of the poor will live in fragile states, yet, in spite of the studies already conducted, the rigorous evidence for building peace and stability is limited. Our Peace & Recovery Program aims to build an evidence base to facilitate peace and address the conflicts and crises that face the majority of the poor around the world. We seek out programs that strengthen state capacities, reduce violence, or respond to crises ranging from health to natural to human-made. We work in both fragile states as well as states that have recently experienced conflict, violence or disaster. The program also collaborates with decision-makers to ensure that this evidence is both useful and implemented at scale. Research in this program area is led by numerous affiliated researchers, and Academic Lead Chris Blattman will be supporting IPA’s expansion of research in this program area.

Learn more here. The focus is on program evaluation of innovative programs for reducing violence and conflict, and promoting order and stability. We welcome suggestions of innovative models, and organizations interested in research and learning. Email us at [email protected].

When the long term data tell you hope is lost, wait for the long long run data

Everyone thought the Perry preschool program was a loss, until they saw the long run data on the children as adults.

Now one of the other great American social experiments is showing a surprising turnaround:

The Moving to Opportunity (MTO) experiment offered randomly selected families living in high-poverty housing projects housing vouchers to move to lower-poverty neighborhoods.

We present new evidence on the impacts of MTO on children’s long-term outcomes using administrative data from tax returns. We find that moving to a lower-poverty neighborhood significantly improves college attendance rates and earnings for children who were young (below age 13) when their families moved. These children also live in better neighborhoods themselves as adults and are less likely to become single parents.

The treatment effects are substantial: children whose families take up an experimental voucher to move to a lower-poverty area when they are less than 13 years old have an annual income that is $3,477 (31%) higher on average relative to a mean of $11,270 in the control group in their mid-twenties. In contrast, the same moves have, if anything, negative long-term impacts on children who are more than 13 years old when their families move, perhaps because of disruption effects.

The gains from moving fall with the age when children move, consistent with recent evidence that the duration of exposure to a better environment during childhood is a key determinant of an individual’s long-term outcomes. The findings imply that offering families with young children living in high-poverty housing projects vouchers to move to lower-poverty neighborhoods may reduce the intergenerational persistence of poverty and ultimately generate positive returns for taxpayers.

Continue to file under “migration is still the most effective development intervention known to humankind”.

Heart of darkness, Manhattan edition

Wednesday Martin treks into darkest Manhattan, the Upper East Side, to dwell amongst the Glam SAHM tribe (for glamorous stay-at-home-moms).

Sex segregation, I was told, was a “choice.” But like “choosing” not to work, or a Dogon woman in Mali’s “choosing” to go into a menstrual hut, it struck me as a state of affairs possibly giving clue to some deeper, meaningful reality while masquerading, like a reveler at the Save Venice ball the women attended every spring, as a simple preference.

And then there were the wife bonuses.

…A wife bonus, I was told, might be hammered out in a pre-nup or post-nup, and distributed on the basis of not only how well her husband’s fund had done but her own performance — how well she managed the home budget, whether the kids got into a “good” school — the same way their husbands were rewarded at investment banks. In turn these bonuses were a ticket to a modicum of financial independence and participation in a social sphere where you don’t just go to lunch, you buy a $10,000 table at the benefit luncheon a friend is hosting.