Chris Blattman

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Jobs and jail might not keep young men out of crime, but how about therapy?

A shameless repost from The Monkey Cage. Photo from Glenna Gordon.


In too many countries, poor and unemployed young men are recruited into riots, election thuggery and rebellions. High-crime neighborhoods are a problem in almost every big city.

Most solutions you’ve heard of probably boil down to one of two things: jobs or jail. Unfortunately, there’s not much evidence that either do much good. In fact, some of the policing and punishment could be making things worse.

Recently, however, social experiments from two very different places — Liberia and Chicago — suggest an alternative: a few weeks of counseling to teach self-control and how to become a better person.

Jobs and jail assume that adults are adults — you’re not going to change who they are, but you can change their incentives. I’m an economist by training, so of course I think that incentives matter. That’s practically our motto. But in repeating it, we might forget to study whether people can change, to what, and how.

Actually, we do think about this kind of change in children. Invest in early childhood. This is what so much research tells us. Developing kids’ cognitive and character skills from ages 0 to 5 is one of the best investments for lifelong  success. I’m not talking math or reading skills. The research shows that “character skills” like self control and managing your emotions probably matter most of all for a successful life: learning to control your impulses, keep your temper and wait patiently for the fruits of your labor. If someone fosters these skills in you as a toddler, chances are you’re more likely to finish college, get a good job and avoid drugs and arrest.

So what about the young men who reach adulthood and don’t have these skills? Some aspects of character might be innate — nature’s gift to you — but the data say your upbringing and environment matters a lot. If you live in a place that’s unsafe, where the schools and community have broken down and families are under strain, then you might lose some of your chances to learn self control. Actually, being impatient and impulsive and being quick to anger might even be skills that keep you alive.

I work in Liberia, where a generation of young men lost their childhoods to 14 years of war and political instability. The men I work with have little more than the shirts on their backs, and they “hustle” for a living on the streets of Monrovia. The hustle can mean something as simple as hawking goods or hard labor for a few dollars a day. But said with a certain look in your eye, “the hustle” means the pickpocketing, hold-ups, home robberies and drug dealing that earn you more than just a few dollars.

The men I work with spend a third of their working lives in the criminal sort of hustle, tend to use drugs every day, and sleep on the streets on a regular basis. About half are ex-combatants from the war. They can be dangerous to the people around them. They are in fights with each other or the authorities all the time. In neighboring Sierra Leone, the political parties hired their Freetown counterparts to be election goons. And when a brief war broke out in Ivory Coast, some of the Liberian men were offered $500 to jump on a truck and go fight.

In 2010, I’d spent a couple of years studying former fighters in the rural areas, usually isolated mining sites where they were illegally panning for gold and diamonds. But on one visit, I landed in Monrovia only to find I had pneumonia, and so I sat in a clinic for a week. As I started to feel better, I still couldn’t leave the capital, so I called a friend to take me around the tougher parts of Monrovia to find out more about the crime and drugs and other risks that threatened the city’s peace.

Johnson Borh was a remarkable guy. He was a former combatant himself who’d quit the war to help young people turn their lives around. He gathered like-minded people and they began developing a short group intervention they called STYL, for Sustainable Transformation of Youth in Liberia.

I was skeptical, but for every drug dealer or petty thief we talked to, he pointed out a guy with a shop or business that graduated from some version of STYL.

I called in two friends: a psychologist at Harvard, Margaret Sheridan, and a behavioral economist in the US government, Julian Jamison. We asked for the STYL curriculum, and Margaret said an interesting thing: This looks like cognitive behavior therapy in the U.S.

It turned out Johnson and his colleagues had cobbled together every training and therapy manual they could get their hands on for more than 10 years. They attended trainings by the U.N. or some nonprofit, and took pieces from what they learned. They tried out this and that, and after a decade of experimenting, they had an eight-week group therapy that they said could work with the toughest characters.

The STYL program looked a lot like the way that U.S. psychologists try to treat aggression, substance abuse and criminal problems. It taught men techniques to cool their anger and make more careful decisions. The men learned to plan and set goals. And men also practiced how to become more mainstream members of society: dressing differently, going to places like supermarkets or banks where they hadn’t felt welcome, and generally seeing that people (for the first time in their lives) treated them with respect.

We thought we’d put STYL to the test. Over the next few years, we worked with Innovations for Poverty Action to run a large experiment: We’d recruit men interested in taking their chances for a shot at the STYL program. A quarter would get the therapy, a quarter would get $200 cash, a quarter would get the therapy followed by the cash, and the last quarter would get none.

The cash was partly a measurement tool (how would they use it differently if they also got STYL?), but it was also a way to give them some work. The men told us that the absence of capital was what was holding them back, and a lot of evidence from elsewhere in Africa suggests this is true. So we worked with the nonprofit Global Communities to give them what they asked for: 10 Andrew Jacksons in the palms of their hands.

We started with 100 people, since we were worried that the best investment with $200 was to buy a handgun or a lot more drugs to sell. But after seeing that none of the fears came to pass, we expanded to 1,000 men.

What we found amazed us. We sought out the toughest men Johnson and his crew could find in the slums and markets of Monrovia. About two-thirds were interested in the programs and lottery, and about two-thirds of those finished the therapy if they were offered it.

Just the offer of therapy had huge impacts. Crime, carrying a weapon, fights with each other and police, arrests, and even things as simple as losing your temper — they dropped by 20 to 50 percent within a few weeks of finishing the therapy. After a year, these effects had started to dissipate if the men got therapy alone. But if they got cash after the therapy, the effects stayed steady or grew.

Men offered STYL also reported fewer impulsive behaviors and better planning and goal setting. They changed their appearance and behaviors, and found that they could earn the respect of neighbors. Normal society accepted them.

It wasn’t because the cash made them a big success. Most men invested the cash in a petty business, like buying and selling items in the market. Even the ones who didn’t get therapy. For the first month or two, most men made decent money from this petty business. But it turned out that men in these neighborhoods get stolen from, a lot. Up to once every month or two. A year after the therapy and grants, all the fruits of the cash were gone. Yet the behavior change remained.

What was going on? It’s hard to say, but our sense is that the cash let men keep practicing their new life. They could avoid crime for a while, dress and act better, and be a respectable businessman. This extended performance helped cement their new respectable self-image and practice their self control skills (at least for some men). That is to say, therapy got them partway down the righteous path, and a little cash helped them keep from falling off.

This result might seem a little unusual (and hard to repeat) if the same kind of program hadn’t produced similar results in a very different place: Chicago high schools. A group of scholars have been studying cognitive behavior therapy programs for several years, including one called the “Becoming A Man” program, or BAM.

BAM teaches the same kind of planful, reflective behaviors to young men, including how to control anger and impulses. It’s offered to teens, only some of whom are actively involved in crime or drugs. So this is a very different group than the Liberian men. But the Chicago teens have opportunities for delinquency and crime, and BAM has a similar effect: It reduces crime for a year. It also improves the chances the young men stay in school.

What these programs have in common is that they teach young men things that a lot of their peers got earlier in life from family or institutions. It’s remedial skills for being a patient, controlled person. These programs seem to work, and they’re cheap. STYL cost less than $250 per person.

Something that works is a big deal. Whether it’s in the U.S. or developing countries, job training programs have a spotty track record. Business skills programs seldom pass a simple cost benefit test. Incarceration might make criminal behaviors worse. And policing strategies, for whatever good they do, are too often violent and discriminatory.

So with behavioral therapy we might be onto something. Finally.

I wouldn’t expect this to work everywhere. In Liberia, we weren’t competing with mafioso, a terrorist group, or a drug gang for the loyalties of the men. And racial or other prejudices weren’t a barrier to the Liberian men entering normal society. My hunch is that the behavioral therapy helps some men some of the time, especially when it comes to reducing spontaneous, expressive or disorganized crime and violence. But an awful lot of crime and riots and other costly violence fits in this category. So I’d like to see this kind of therapy tried out and tested more.

So continue to invest in children, of course. But we don’t need to throw the adults under the bus to save the kids. Where jobs and jail haven’t worked, skills for self control just might.

For more on the Liberia STYL study, see the full paper, a short policy note, or the project page.

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