Editor’s Note: Jens Ludwig is the Edwin A. and Betty L. Bergman Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago, Pritzker Director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab and an elected member of the National Academy of Medicine of the National Academies of Science. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
In 1973, two psychologists came up with a clever experiment. They took a group of Princeton Theological Seminary students and asked them to walk across campus to give a lecture on the parable of the “Good Samaritan.” Along their route, the psychologists positioned someone in a doorway, not moving, eyes closed, coughing and groaning as the study subjects went by – someone, in other words, clearly in need of a Good Samaritan’s help.
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.
Today, as gun violence is surging in American cities, we see growing concern about what, if anything, can be done. For 50 years, America’s policies were motivated by the idea that bad behavior is caused by bad people, which led to calls to be “tough on crime,” which in turn led to the construction of the largest prison system in the world.
Those policies left us with a homicide rate that is still higher than that of any other rich country while exacting a ruinous cost to society – in Black and brown communities in particular. It’s clear that hasn’t solved the problem.
But the Good Samaritan study shows us that our behaviors are often not due to anything about us as people, but to our situations. To the extent to which that idea has had purchase in the debate about crime, the focus has tended to be on fundamental root causes – poverty, segregation or widespread availability of guns to people who shouldn’t have them.
For good reason – these are indeed critical. It is remarkable that over 50 years ago President Lyndon Johnson could call for dramatic change to address root causes, yet not nearly enough has actually changed.
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.
The crime problem in America is really about gun violence, which devastates families, communities and – by driving out people and businesses – even cities themselves. Nearly eight of every 10 murders in America was committed with a gun in 2020, according to data from Pew Research Center.
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.
A neighbor won’t turn down their music. A landlord and tenant argue over unpaid rent. A group of teens think some other teens stole a bike. Someone gets cut off in traffic. All arguments that could have been de-escalated but weren’t – and they end in tragedy because someone has a gun.
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.
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.
This experiment – known as the “Stroop test” – reveals something fundamental about how the mind works: Conscious, deliberate thought is taxing, so our minds try to avoid it as much as possible. Instead, we tend to rely on automatic responses that work well for ordinary situations we see over and over.
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.
This insight from behavioral science helps us understand why gun violence is higher in some neighborhoods than in others. In disadvantaged areas, a large body of research from sociology suggests young people unfortunately learn they’re on their own in terms of keeping themselves safe.
In many of these neighborhoods, large numbers of local adults are incarcerated in the justice system, which overwhelms the adults and institutions that remain, and leaves the young people who live there vulnerable to the intimidation, aggression or violence of others.
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.
It’s also the case that stress makes people more likely to rely on default responses like the fight-back reflex, and that levels of stress and trauma are much higher in some neighborhoods than others.
As researchers Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir note in their book, “Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much”, stress depletes mental bandwidth and leads us to default more to our automatic responses. In the most disadvantaged neighborhoods that are most challenging to navigate, stress makes that navigation even more difficult.
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.
I saw this in one of the first research studies I was involved in, the federal government’s Moving to Opportunity (MTO) initiative. Starting in 1994, MTO helped families from economically distressed neighborhoods move to less distressed areas. Moving a few miles presumably didn’t alter a participant’s character, and the income of MTO families also didn’t change when they moved. Yet, violent crime arrests of MTO teens plummeted by almost 40%. What changed? The difficulty of the situations they faced.
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.
In the meantime, there are tangible steps we can take right now to make difficult situations more forgiving. For one, we can make it more likely that there are adults around who can step in and help de-escalate arguments before they spiral out of control. This is the logic behind street outreach and violence interrupter organizations, which for the first time is targeted for substantial funding in next year’s proposed federal budget.
The potential for this approach to help prevent gun violence is not wishful thinking. Research from a series of randomized controlled trials of the sort that provide “gold standard” evidence in medicine, as well as studies of naturally-occurring “policy experiments,” show almost anything that gets more people out on the streets, from installing better street lighting to turning vacant lots into parks, reduces crime.
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.
Consider an exercise practiced in one of Chicago’s most effective violence intervention programs, Becoming a Man (BAM). Teens are paired up; one is given a rubber ball, and the other is given 30 seconds to get the ball out of his partner’s fist. Inevitably, the two teens end up on the ground, wrestling and fighting to get – or keep – the ball.
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.
Essentially, they learn to evaluate their automatic responses, and in some situations, just ask for the ball – or stop to help a person coughing in a doorway. Research including several randomized controlled trials by my research center, the University of Chicago Crime Lab, found BAM reduces violent crime arrests by nearly 50%. While scaling social programs is often a challenge, it is encouraging that we see similarly beneficial effects from related programs, like Choose To Change and programs delivered in other settings like juvenile detention centers.
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.