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To Prevent Crime, Respect the Role of Self-Control

Alex R. Piquero

October 25, 2023

An underappreciated way to reduce violence

An underappreciated way to reduce violence

When people and policymakers think about crime prevention, they tend to begin first with what the criminal justice system, especially police, can do about it. We know that the police can be one part of a more general response to crime prevention, including violent crime reduction in targeted hotspots as shown by Jerry Ratcliffe in a Philadelphia study, and as Anthony Braga and Philip Cook so eloquently pointed out in a recent piece in Vital City. But it is certainly not the only one, nor the most effective one when it comes to improving public safety, as a research team led by the John Jay Research and Evaluation Center summarized and that the Council on Criminal Justice observed with their violence reduction recommendations. Efforts like cleaning and greening vacant lots and areas, streetlight improvements, and in some cases, community violence intervention/interruption are also successful or at least promising approaches. But, for my money, there may be no better way to prevent crime — and improve many other outcomes throughout life — than to build up the self-control of individuals.

The term self-control may be defined by academics differently depending on disciplinary orientation, but most readers know what self-control is and what it means for them. At its core, self-control is the ability to manage and moderate one’s impulses and to consider the longer-term implications of one’s actions. It is established largely through parental socialization, early in the life course, but it is not a static individual characteristic and can change and improve with age and with training and modification. In fact, all of us have had direct experience with using our self-control or even recognizing when we failed to exercise it.

Think back to the last time you opened up a bag of chips. Did you eat just one or a few minutes later, did you find yourself halfway through the bag? Think back to the last time you opened up a pint of ice cream. Did you take out a scoop and place it in a bowl or did you take out a spoon and have at it? Think back to the last time you didn't feel like working out. Did you muscle through it or just say, “I'll make it up on Monday?” 

These are all decisions that we make on a routine basis, but the differences in deciding one or the other option with the scenarios listed above have much to do with your self-control and your ability and willingness to exercise it.

Why does all of this matter for crime prevention, you might ask. Well, a lot. Self-control has been found to be strongly related to delinquency and criminal behavior — as well as victimization — throughout the life course. Moreover, self-control has been found to be predictive of health, wealth and other aspects of public safety, as found in a birth cohort study in New Zealand. These results appear in studies of children, adolescents and adults in the U.S. and abroad, and with a variety of different approaches to measuring both self-control and antisocial and deviant outcomes. Given its strong predictive abilities, it is critical for us to understand how to effectively socialize children to have and use self-control — but also to help people improve their self-control when socialization efforts are not effective. Fortunately, the evidence on this front is also quite strong.

Self-control has been found to be strongly related to delinquency and criminal behavior — as well as victimization — throughout the life course.

In a meta-analysis I led, and then in a subsequent follow-up analysis several years later, we found very strong evidence that early-family/parent training programs which tend to focus on teaching children self-control and better decision-making skills were effective in preventing antisocial and delinquent behavior. And in a separate meta-analysis reviewing self-control improvement programs that I also led, we found that such programs work to improve self-control and reduce delinquency. We also replicated those results with an additional number of studies a few years later in an updated meta-analysis and were once again led to the same conclusion: These programs can improve self-control and reduce antisocial behavior.

There are various examples of early-family/parent training programs, including the Triple P-Positive Parenting Program and the Nurse Home Partnership Program. And there are solid evidence-based programs that teach children effective emotional regulation, self-control and problem-solving skills. One very promising cost-effective program, which originated in Canada and has since expanded into the United States and throughout the world, is Stop Now And Plan (SNAP). A model that works with both parents and children, SNAP is designed to help kids learn to pause and think before they act, so they make better choices “in the moment” that help keep them in school and out of trouble.

Research supporting SNAP has emerged using randomized controlled trials and among different demographic groups — documenting among other things, improvements in self-control and reductions in externalizing (antisocial) behavior. It is comforting to know that these types of early childhood programs are being expanded throughout the United States, while similar childhood investment programs are being funded and implemented around the world, including in Canada, which is rolling out an early learning and childcare initiative.

 A combined steering and braking approach, we contend, may actually be a more optimal approach when it comes to self-control.

Thus far, these efforts have been focused on impulse control and there is good evidence on this front. Recently however, Kathleen Vohs, a distinguished management professor at the University of Minnesota, and I have started to think about another aspect of self-control that may be just as important and, in turn, offer an additional important target of opportunity to reduce poor decisions and help improve life outcomes. Using the analogy of race car drivers, who have to both steer their cars and brake at a moment’s notice, we argued that teaching children (and adults!) to avoid problematic situations, or steering, can also help to improve healthy outcomes and limit bad decisions. A combined steering and braking approach, we contend, may actually be a more optimal approach when it comes to self-control.

Fortunately, self-control and other decision-making programs are being looked upon by county and city leaders as well as government officials throughout the United States and abroad. In fact, here in Miami-Dade County where I reside, Mayor Daniella Levine Cava’s Peace and Prosperity Plan secured a round of funding for SNAP. It is not surprising, of course, that for many of them, the cost-benefit analysis, as Michael Rocque and I noted, strongly supports a calculation that benefits outweigh costs. With estimates that saving youth from a life of crime can exceed several million dollars, as Mark Cohen from Vanderbilt University and I estimated in an earlier study, it is clear that it is much wiser to invest in people early in life rather than paying the price later. The decision to invest in self-control programs, however, should not be motivated solely by money, but instead should be motivated by investing in people and doing so as early as possible. As James Heckman has noted, this will yield the highest rate of human capital returns. 

Some years ago, I wrote that we can be smarter on crime by being smarter on people. Focusing on self-control is one piece of an overall public safety strategy, that as John Roman argued in Vital City, compliments — but does not substitute for — policing. But the fact that self-control affects so many other things in life makes investing in it so simple. The right decision is to spend smartly now to gain the benefits later.