Problem of rational adaptive behaviour in at-risk youth

Heller, S. B., Shah, A. K., Guryan, J., Ludwig, J., Mullainathan, S., & Pollack, H. A. (2015). Thinking, Fast and Slow? Some Field Experiments to Reduce Crime and Dropout in Chicago (No. w21178). National Bureau of Economic Research.

ABSTRACT 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 21%. 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.


The key finding is that at-risk youth have difficulty in adapting behaviours to different contexts.  In particular, ‘competitive’ situations that relate to dominance and uncertain social hierarchy.  These situations range from classical adversarial conflict dynamics associated with responses to authority to non-adversarial dynamics associated with how an individual displays self-confidence in job interviews.

At-risk youth, like all youth, deploy automatic (reflexive) decision heuristics aligned with competitive context of uncertain or fluid social hierarchies.  These are rationally adaptive heuristics that match their dominant social context.  However, this automatic behaviour becomes maladapted when social context changes to more certain hierarchies (eg. with authorities such as police or with interviewers in job search) or when situations require co-operative behaviour.

The critically observation is that at-risk youth are not displaying sub-optimal behaviours in the classical cognitive bias sense. – i.e. they are not actually irrationally per se. These are automatic behaviours that are optimal when used in the right context.  The study uses data to highlight the retaliate vs instigate asymmetry in decision heuristics between at-risk and well-off student populations.

The problem is that at-risk youth are having trouble matching the right behaviours with the right context.

The intervention’s (Becoming a Man) solution is teach youth to prioritize the understanding of a context first by slowing down their decision making – ‘think before you act’.  Taking the time to assess the situation, evaluate alternatives and taking the perspective of the other person.  And only tend deploying an appropriate reflexive (automatic) or reflective (considered) behaviour.  The intervention also focuses on participants practicing how to bring themselves down from a ‘hot’ emotional state.

The results and observations arising from this intervention suggest that the key problem is teaching at-risk child how to judge situations and apply an appropriate set of decision rules.  Importantly, these are social context dependent rules are best learnt in early childhood when these automatic (reflexive) adaptive behaviours form.

Another very important reason we need universal kindergarten for children from 4 years of age – when a child’s ‘theory of the mind’ formation shapes our social context recognition, behavioural preferences (co-operation, competition etc.) and decision heuristics.