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Reduce Crime Through Therapy

Update Date: Jul 02, 2013 02:34 PM EDT

In response to a horrific crime that occurred on campus, the University of Chicago started a center that focused on averting crime.  The crime, which involved a robbery gone wrong, left a 29-year-old student, Amadou Cisse, who was finishing up his Ph.D. in chemistry dead. The killer, Demetrius Warren had shot Cisse with a .22 caliber gun after he failed to turn over his book bag. Warren was sentenced to 120 years in prison back in 2011. After this horrific night, the University's center for studying crime has been researching ways to reduce violent crimes. In a study that was issued by the National Bureau of Economic Research, researchers believe that they might have pinpointed an effective way to curb crimes.

In order to understand why crime occurs and how they could be averted, the researchers revisited that night. The researchers reasoned that when Warren shot Cisse at point blank, he had nothing to gain. The researchers then asked why Warren would risk his entire life by shooting someone that had nothing to give him. In order to be able to identify ways to preventing crime, understanding what went through Warren's mind became one of the focal points in the study.

 "It's very hard to imagine that anyone would think it was a good idea to shoot someone at point blank range in exchange for a book bag and a water bottle that would surely have a resale value of not more than a couple of dollars at best," Jens Ludwig explained according to NPR. Ludwig is the director of the Crime Lab.

The research team, headed by Harold Pollack reviewed every homicide case in Chicago that involved young adults. Pollack looked at all the cases that occurred within a year and made social autopsies of all the cases in order to understand why each one occurred. Pollack noticed a trend in youth homicide crimes that involved altercations like Cisse and Warren in which a dispute most likely aggravated the situation resulting in an "automatic response."

"Most serious violent events are almost Seinfeldian in their origin - someone saying something stupid to someone else, and that escalating and basically turning into a tragedy because someone had a handgun in their waist band at that time," Ludwig said.

Bases from this understanding, the researchers designed an experiment and recruited around 1,400 students from grades seven to 10. The students were all from high-crime areas within the city. The researchers placed this group of participants in a 30-week training program, titled Becoming a Man.  This program involved cognitive behavioral therapy, which helped reshape the teenagers' thought processes. For example, the therapy helped teenagers acknowledge unconscious thought patterns that could result in an unhappy life. Another group of children that fit the same criteria were monitored without this program and acted as the control group.

The researchers discovered that oftentimes, the teenagers turned to violence after they felt that the other person perceived them in a negative light. The researchers then taught the teenagers how to change their own perceptions of the other person's thoughts. If the teenagers were not so worried or nervous about what the other persons was thinking, they might not make rash decisions, such as killing or beating up someone else.  Although the program worked and lowered arrest rates in the group that received training, once the program was over, the researchers found that the arrest rates went right back up. Even though the success of this study into how therapy could help curb violence was limited to the 30-weeks of training, the results suggest that some level of therapy could potentially help lower crime rates. 

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