Cool Head and Warm Heart: How Economists Address Crimes

Some people argue that economics is just a “boring math game” and doesn’t really deal with the messy, real-world economy we’re all living in. As Thomas Quincey once put it, “Economists are too obsessed with math.” But actually, economics does help us think about a bunch of stuff: Why is it that safety and security are a luxury for many communities worldwide? Should the government take the lead in crime prevention? What is the incentive for people to conduct crime? Will education help to raise the opportunity cost and thus reduce crime? How should we strike a balance between community policing and private security firms? What’s the connection between crime prevention and its impact on individuals and the future of society? Economics, with all its fancy models and real-world data, dives into these questions and gives us some solid evidence to work with.


A Large-scale Randomized Controlled Trial (RCT) Example

Economists use randomized controlled trials (RCT) to figure out the causal relationships between variables of interest. By randomly assigning individuals or groups to treatment and control conditions, researchers can isolate the impact of the specific intervention or policy being studied.


Over at the University of Chicago and Northwestern University, economists started large-scale RCTs aimed at reducing crime and dropout rates by altering the decision-making processes of disadvantaged youth who are at an elevated risk for these negative outcomes.



The heart of this research focuses on an intervention program known as “Becoming a Man” or BAM, developed by the Chicago nonprofit Youth Guidance. In this program, students are engaged in thought-provoking exercises, one of which involves a simple ball game. One student is given the ball, and the other is challenged to take it within 30 seconds. Pretty much all the kids try to grab the ball using physical force. But here’s the interesting part: after the activity, the leader of the group points out that none of them actually asked for the ball. When asked why they didn’t just ask nicely, most of them say something like, ‘He wouldn’t have given it to me,’ or ‘He’d have thought I was a pushover.’ Then the leader turns to the other kid and asks, ‘How would you have reacted if someone had just asked you politely for the ball?’ The answer usually goes like, ‘I would’ve handed it over; it’s just a ball.’ This exercise, like a lot of others in the program, encourages youth to critically analyze the situations they find themselves in and think before acting impulsively.


Intervention Strategies

These interventions were conducted in some of the most disadvantaged neighborhoods on the south and west sides of Chicago, enrolling 2,740 youth for a one-year program in the 2009–2010 academic year and the second spanning two years, involving 2,064 youth in the academic years 2013–2014 and 2014–2015. The outcomes were measured using longitudinal government administrative data. The impact of these programs during their duration was significant, reducing total arrests by 28–35%, violent-crime arrests by 45–50%, and arrests for other crimes by 37–43%.


What sets these interventions apart is not only the impressive behavioral changes they induced but also their cost-effectiveness. The programs achieved these results at relatively low costs, often less than $2,000 per participant. In fact, the value of crime reduction alone is estimated to yield benefit-cost ratios ranging from 5-to-1 up to an astonishing 30-to-1. And this estimation may be a conservative one, considering the program’s additional positive impact on high school graduation rates.


Reflection on the Results

Why do these interventions work so effectively? The answer lies in how they encourage youth to slow down and carefully assess high-stakes situations, examining their automatic assumptions and potential alternative interpretations of the situation. In essence, these programs help youth develop a greater sense of occasion. They help them think before reacting impulsively.


The theory behind these interventions predicts that BAM participants will slow down and spend more time considering how to respond to provocations. It doesn’t dictate their responses but rather depends on how the individuals interpret their situations. What’s intriguing is that while BAM did increase decision-making time by 80%, there were relatively few differences in the amount of retaliation administered between BAM participants and the control group. This suggests that these interventions aren’t simply about making youth uniformly more pro-social but, rather, about helping them make better decisions in high-stakes scenarios.


It offers an alternative to traditional social policies that attempt to change behavior by altering long-term incentives. By helping young individuals recognize their automatic responses and assumptions, we may have found a way to empower them to make better choices in high-stakes situations. As one staff member at the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center wisely noted, “20% of our residents are criminals; they will harm other people if they are not locked up. But the other 80%, I always tell them—if I could give you back just 10 minutes of your lives, you wouldn’t be here.”


Critiques about the Research Results

While the randomized controlled trials (RCTs) examining the Becoming a Man (BAM) program have yielded promising results, there are a few important criticisms to take into account. First, participants may alter their behavior simply because they are aware of being studied, we call it Hawthorne Effect. Second, the effectiveness of the BAM program in reducing crime and dropout rates might not necessarily apply to different cultural contexts or communities beyond the specific disadvantaged neighborhoods in Chicago where it was implemented. Third, there are always ethical concerns related to the use of control groups. Some might argue that withholding potentially beneficial interventions from a vulnerable population is problematic.


Back in the day, the first economists were Greek philosophers, politicians, and thinkers. But now, more and more economists are becoming change-makers, using their toolkit – those fancy modeling and data skills – to tackle specific social issues, such as crime. In this evolving landscape, they bring not only economic concepts but also “a cool head and a warm heart” to set up experiments and evaluate the effectiveness of interventions, thus making a social impact.


Further Reading

Sara B. Heller, Anuj K. Shah, Jonathan Guryan, Jens Ludwig, Sendhil Mullainathan, Harold A. Pollack, Thinking, Fast and Slow? Some Field Experiments to Reduce Crime and Dropout in Chicago, The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Volume 132, Issue 1, February 2017, Pages 1–54,

Guryan, Jonathan, Jens Ludwig, Monica P. Bhatt, Philip J. Cook, Jonathan M. V. Davis, Kenneth Dodge, George Farkas, Roland G. Fryer Jr., Susan Mayer, Harold Pollack, Laurence Steinberg, and Greg Stoddard. 2023. “Not Too Late: Improving Academic Outcomes among Adolescents.” American Economic Review, 113 (3): 738-65.

Monica P. Bhatt, Jonathan Guryan, Jens Ludwig, Anuj K. Shah, 2021. “Scope Challenges to Social Impact,” NBER Working Papers 28406, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.