Study: Slow Thinking Reduces Crime in Chicago

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It sounds simple: slow down and make better choices.

Most of us don't do that as well as we could, but researchers are studying how the simple act of slowing down can reduce crime.

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A University of Chicago business professor teamed up with the nonprofit Youth Guidance to see how the practice of "slow thinking" is keeping young men out of trouble, and in the classroom.

Brandis Friedman has this story.


Brandon Bailys: I’m going to ask you guys to get to the starting point. These are stepping stones. This is where we need to go.

Brandis Friedman: Self-determination. Family. Passion.

These are just some of the values written on these "stepping stones" needed for these high school students to accomplish their goals.

But they also need each other—their brothers in this Becoming A Man session.

AntoineAntoine Antoine, 17-year-old 11th-grader who lives in the South Shore neighborhood: You can't take big leaps in life. There’s baby steps that you have to follow.

Friedman: Their goal in this case: just to get across the room.

Antoine: You can't really do stuff on your own. So basically taking steps and having someone that supports you right behind you, helps you complete your goal.

Friedman: These young men are juniors at Roberto Clemente Community Academy in the city's West Town neighborhood.

The Becoming A Man class, or BAM, is designed for teens in ninth through 12th grade.

Michael, 16-year-old ninth-grader who lives in Humboldt Park: I think it's a good way to influence young men because not a lot of us have father figures. They do a good job showing us how to become a man.

Friedman: Regular meetings with each other and their counselors can lead to increased engagement in school and lower incidents of violence.

At check-in, 16-year-old Noah shared some sad news.

NoahNoah Noah, 11th-grader who lives in Humboldt Park: Intellectually, I'm thinking about my grandmother passing away on Friday.

Friedman: And he learns he has the support of his BAM brothers and counselor.

Group: Sorry for your loss, I’m very sorry to hear that. You know we here.  

Friedman: Noah, a wrestling athlete, says BAM has helped him learn how to take a breath when life tries to pin him down.

Noah: If I wasn't in BAM, I'd a kept that inside. I'd still been hurt today because me and her were really close. With me and BAM, it taught me how to cope with loss. Because see I lost a lot of people and I didn't know how to cope with it.

Friedman: Counselor Brandon Bailys explains, though the class may look like fun and games, there's a science at work.

Brandon BailysBrandon Bailys Brandon Bailys: The basis of the BAM Youth Guidance program is cognitive behavioral therapy. And cognitive behavioral therapy at the core is saying how we think affects how we feel, affects how we act and vice versa.  

Friedman: And though the students may not know it, the program is aiming to make their thinking and actions much slower.

Anuj Shah, professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business: The thing that we should appreciate about what the BAM program is doing is it’s teaching young men to slow down in a context where they face different consequences if they don't slow down.

So it’s not that they're any different from kids who are growing up in safe neighborhoods, it’s that in violent or tough neighborhoods, it's more important to reflect on what you're doing because the rules change from any given moment.

Friedman: Professor Anuj Shah has researched the practice of "slow thinking" and its impact on the 4,000 young men who are in, or have come through, BAM classes across Chicago Public Schools.

Shah says his research has shown enrollment in BAM reduces arrests by a third, compared with the students in the control group.

Arrests for violent crimes are down by half. And school engagement is higher as well.

Anju Shah Anju Shah Shah:  So the very first BAM evaluation was done in the 2009-2010 academic year with seventh to 10th-graders. We’re now seeing that as those young men reach graduation age, in fact, we're seeing a significant uptick in the graduation rate for the people who had been through BAM.

Friedman: One way students practice slow thinking is to role-play a situation.

Shah:  It’s not about lecturing at them and giving them these abstract principles. They have them do these very engaging tasks, so have them do a task where they in fact start arguing with each other.

Then the counselor will step in and say, “OK, what are you seeing here? Why are you seeing that? What’s going on?” It’s a lot of questions that try to get the young men themselves to unpack why they're making the assumptions they might be making in that moment.

Friedman: Students also complete a task like this one or have a guided meditation, as in this ninth-grade class.

MichaelMichael Michael: It just makes me calm. It’s just a moment where everything in my mind is going blank, and I'm just thinking about what's being said.

Noah: Becoming A Man taught me how to work on my anger, how to focus more on school, how to become more of a student athlete. It taught me a lot about life, and life’s trials and tribulations.

Friedman: And even though exercises in both class  and life may take a few attempts to get right.

Group: Yeah!! Yeah!! They finally made it.

Friedman: They know they can succeed in the end.

For "Chicago Tonight," I'm Brandis Friedman.

Learn more about Youth Guidance by visiting the organization's website.

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