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The Power of Slow Thinking

becoming a man illustration
An illustrationImage: Illustration by Paul Blow

Fall 2018

The typical Becoming a Man session includes a simple game: One young man tucks a small ball into his palm, while his partner has one minute to do whatever it takes to get it away from him.

Often the young men start wrestling, trying to pry open their partner’s hand by force. Afterward, when the counselor suggests simply asking for the ball, the boys look skeptical — and then surprised — when their partners confirm that a simple request would have worked. The exercise demonstrates how easy it is to act on impulse and make assumptions about what others are thinking — and the value of pausing to consider other solutions.

“Kids learn to stop and think,” says economist Jonathan Guryan, who has studied the effects of Becoming a Man and other cognitive behavioral therapy programs for nearly a decade. CBT-based programs address impulsive, automatic responses that can potentially lead to violence. 

becoming a man program helps people learn to think before they act

Nicole Wong

People often act without thinking, a trait psychologists call automaticity. It’s a helpful function to address problems and make decisions, but for youth growing up in Chicago’s most distressed neighborhoods, where high-stakes situations occur frequently, being aware of the dangers of automatic thinking can mean the difference between life and death.

“Programs that are based on cognitive behavioral therapy help people to recognize situations when it’s useful to stop and think before they act,” says Guryan, a professor of human development and social policy. “And just doing that can help people to avoid making automatic decisions that would have led to outcomes they want to avoid.”

BAM, developed and run by the nonprofit Youth Guidance, serves an estimated 6,000 young men in seventh through 12th grades in more than 100 Chicago Public Schools, and a similar program is offered in the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center.

Rather than focusing on education or punitive measures to deter crime, CBT-based programs like BAM offer behavioral strategies that teach youth to slow down and think. The programs also employ mentorship and role-playing lessons in a group setting. Participants pick up meditation techniques and learn to express themselves, connect with others and cope with loss.

Guryan has found that BAM reduces arrests for violent crimes by half and increases high school graduation rates by almost 20 percent for CPS students who participate in the program.

Guryan’s research on BAM and other programs takes place at the University of Chicago Education Lab. Co-founded by Guryan in 2012, the Education Lab is a close affiliate of the University of Chicago Crime Lab. Both partner with civic and community leaders to identify, evaluate and learn how to scale promising programs that reduce crime and improve education in urban areas.

In part due to findings from Guryan and his colleagues, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel ’85 MA launched the Mayor’s Mentoring Initiative, a $36 million public-private partnership to expand BAM and similar programs. While Guryan and his team continue evaluating BAM, they are also assessing the Working on Womanhood mentoring program and other initiatives.

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