There was a twist: Before the students left to give their lecture, some were told they were late. Others weren’t told anything at all. That little variation in their situation made all the difference in their behavior.
Only 10% of the students who were “late” stopped to help the slumping man, whereas nearly two-thirds of those who were “on time” stopped to offer help. As the psychologists put it, “On several occasions, a seminary student going to give his talk on the parable of the Good Samaritan literally stepped over the victim as he hurried on his way.”
The two psychologists didn’t know it then — and it certainly wasn’t their intent — but through their study, they demonstrated something unexpected: a key driver of gun violence in America.
Solving these problems would seem to be — unfortunately — a long-term project.
The current conventional wisdoms, then, would seem to leave us with the choice between repeating the past or trying the impossible. But there is another way to address gun violence that has not received nearly enough public attention.
New insights from behavioral science suggest there’s more to situations than root causes — as the Good Samaritan example itself suggests — and help us see that progress on the gun violence crisis is much more possible than we’ve thought.
Crime is not what you think
But gun violence is also not what you think. Unlike what we see in the movies or on television, gun violence in America is not wholly driven by wars between gangs over drug-selling turf. It’s not clear that our mental image of murders being due to a sort of rational benefit-cost type analysis, in which shootings are pre-planned and thought through, is right.
What we really have is an arguments-with-guns problem. Knowing that changes how we should think about whether preventing violence is possible, and how.
A new perspective
Behavioral science helps us see why we so often make mistakes in arguments, and how our situations can make mistakes more likely.
Imagine we played a game where I quickly flashed a word and asked you to name the color of the ink in which the word was printed. I first show you “blue,” displayed in blue ink. You say blue. Then I show you “pink,” in pink ink. Great. Finally, I flash the word “green” printed in red ink. Your first instinct would be to say “green” because reading words presented before you is almost always the most helpful way to interact with words. You do it automatically.
The Stroop test shows us that those automatic responses can get us into trouble when they’re over-generalized into uncommon situations. We make a mistake because we confuse an out-of-the-ordinary situation (“identify the ink color of the words in front of you”) for an ordinary one (“read the words in front of you”) and default to our automatic response.
Behavioral science and gun violence
When challenged, they need to develop an automatic response to fight back so they’re not seen as an easy target. A friend of mine who grew up on Chicago’s high-violence West Side put it this way: to not fight back would “open the flood gates to victimization.”
But the same mental shortcut that may allow young people to avoid being repeatedly harassed, picked on or beaten up outside of school puts them in danger when relied upon in an out-of-the-ordinary situation, like when someone has a gun.
In contrast, in the economically and racially diverse neighborhood of Hyde Park (home to the University of Chicago), young people never have to develop a fight-back reflex. The university puts a security guard or an emergency phone on almost every corner, and there are lots of other teachers, shopkeepers and other adults around as well.
Young people in these areas learn the right automatic response to being challenged is to not resist, then go tell a security guard. That’s also the right response to out-of-the-ordinary situations like when someone’s got a gun. Relying on automatic responses is not a big deal when the same behavior works in both ordinary and out-of-the-ordinary situations.
The key lesson is that criminal behavior is not fundamentally different from human behavior. Teens in affluent neighborhoods with lower instances of street violence are no more moral or thoughtful than teens anywhere else; it’s that their lives demand less deliberate thinking to navigate because their situations are more forgiving.
A few years ago, I was visiting the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center in Chicago, which is where the teenagers deemed “highest risk” are held while their cases go through court. A staff supervisor told me he always tells the kids they’re not bad people, they’re just people who made bad decisions during enormously difficult situations. Or, as he puts it to them: “If I could give you back just 10 minutes of your lives, none of you would be in here.”
This suggests one way to reduce gun violence is to make the difficult situations young people are forced to navigate — those 10-minute windows — more forgiving. In the context of America’s traditional approach to violent crime, that’s a radical idea. It runs directly counter to the notion that incapacitating people is the only way to reduce gun violence. Instead, it tells us to focus our policy efforts on changing the situations people face and the tools they have for navigating those situations.
As the MTO study shows us, perhaps the most important structural change we could make in this regard is to reduce the segregation that plagues our cities and leaves too many neighborhoods under-resourced and over-stressed. Another would be to limit the widespread availability of illegal guns on our streets, which makes crimes much more deadly. But progress on either of these fronts, while critical, has proven to be very slow.
A second, complementary approach that has historically not been part of the public debate is to help young people navigate the difficult situations that our past policies have failed to fix.
After the teens switch roles and the same struggle occurs, the BAM counselor asks why no one just asked their partner for the ball. They usually look surprised and say something along the lines of, “The other guy would have thought I’m a wuss.” The counselor asks the partner if that’s true. The usual answer: “No, I would have given it to him. It’s just a stupid ball.”
This exercise, called “the fist,” doesn’t teach participants to be better people. Instead, it gives them the tools they need to address the actual problem: the situation. By teaching young people to slow down during stressful situations, it helps them navigate in-the-moment decisions that could otherwise lead to violence.
The tragedy is that the conventional wisdom that crime is a product of bad people led America to focus on a narrow set of policy responses that created the world’s largest prison system. You don’t throw someone in prison for life if you think they can change.
The good news is that our improved understanding of human behavior helps us see that preventing gun violence isn’t about dealing with bad people. It’s about creating the situations that give young people those key 10 minutes back.