Research / BFI Working PaperMay 16, 2022

Cognitive Behavior Therapy Reduces Crime and Violence over 10 Years: Experimental Evidence

Christopher Blattman, Sebastian Chaskel, Julian C. Jamison, Margaret Sheridan

In most societies, a small number of people commit the most serious violence. Short-term studies have shown that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can reduce such antisocial behaviors. These behavior changes may be temporary, however, especially from therapy on its own. This is unsettled, however, for there has been little randomized, long-term research. We follow 999 high-risk men in Liberia 10 years after randomization into either: 8 weeks of a therapy; a $200 grant; both; or a control group. A decade later, both therapy alone and therapy with economic assistance produce dramatic reductions in antisocial behaviors. Drug-selling and participation in thefts and robberies, for example, fall by about half. These impacts are greatest among the highest-risk men. The effects of therapy alone, however, are smaller and more fragile. The effects of therapy plus economic assistance are more sustained and precise. Since the cash did not increase earnings for more than a few months, we hypothesize that the grant, and the brief legitimate business activity, reinforced the habit formation embodied in CBT. Overall, results suggest that targeted CBT plus economic assistance is an inexpensive and effective way to prevent violence, especially when policymakers are searching for alternatives to aggressive policing and incarceration.

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