I may be screwing this person over

Wednesday, July 19th, 2017

A recent Freakonomics podcast looks at civic-minded Harvard physician Richard Clarke Cabot’s long-running Cambridge-Somerville Youth Study, which matched troubled boys with mentors — versus a matched control group who received no mentoring:

They found a null effect. They found there were no differences between the treatment and control boys on offending.

When computers came on the scene and they could analyze the data in finer detail, they made an interesting discovery:

On all seven measures — we’re talking, how long did you live? Were you a criminal? Were you mentally healthy, physically healthy, alcoholic, satisfied with your job; satisfied with your marriage? On all seven measures, the treatment group did statistically, significantly worse off than the control group.

The lesson:

And that’s one of the important things people who are engaged in social interventions really don’t spend much time thinking, “I may be screwing this person over.” They are self-conscious about, “Maybe this won’t work, but I’ve got to try!”


  1. Kirk says:

    Like as not, this is the “observer effect”.

    Tell a kid you’re taking them up as a member of an “at-risk” group, and you’re more than likely confirming for them that they’re basically FUBAR in their own minds. Thus, they conform to expectations for both parties.

    Looking at how they normally arrange these things, I think the biggest problem that needs to be addressed is not the intervention itself, but how it’s implemented. You want to have positive effect, then you need to make the fact of your intervention essentially invisible to the kids you’re working on–Or, many of them are going to take the fact that they “need the intervention” itself as a sign that they’re hopelessly compromised already. It’s a case of self-fulfilling prophecy, especially in the black community.

    If it were me, I’d try something akin to what I watched a black NCO pull on some of the “problem children” he had working for him. Being a pretty canny sort of “street psychologist”, what he did was basically fence those troublemakers off, and then tell them that they were incapable of ever amounting to anything, and as such, he was just going to let nature take it’s course with them.

    Unknown to the troublemakers, what he actually did behind their backs was to make sure that they had some solid junior NCOs there to provide guidance and mentorship “behind his back”. He worked with those “front men” of his extensively, and invisibly to the troublemakers, and what happened over the course of about a year, his “You won’t ever amount to anything, so I’m gonna just write you off, now…” abuse actually motivated most of the troublemakers to straighten out and “fly right”, just to spite him. We wound up throwing about three out of the eight out of the Army, eventually, but the other five turned into decent troops who were aghast to find out the nefarious scheme they’d been victims of… The day he admitted it all, and told them how proud he was of them was something that should have gone into the record books for “cognitive dissonance”, because the looks on all five faces were a study in “Wait, what…?”.

    The classic liberal bullshit “helping techniques” don’t actually work, and the reason they don’t work is that the people putting them into effect don’t actually think the people they’re trying to help are capable of that much–And, their victims know that.

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