An acquaintance of mine recently spent five consecutive Saturday mornings sitting in truancy class. Her eight-year-old son had too many unexcused absences from school. Classes were held at a county youth rehabilitation center, where she was escorted by a guard to a classroom. As the guard left, the door locked behind him and my acquaintance found herself locked in a room full of strangers. The class agenda, in her view, was to scare parents into making sure that their kids did not miss school. The message was clear: “If your son misses too much school, the statistics show that he might end up here.”
Do such scare tactics work? And if we’re thinking about applications to marriage and family matters, are people likely to be persuaded by gloomy statistics about, for instance, the effects of divorce on children, or the relative instability of pre-engagement cohabiting unions?
In his book Redirect, psychologist Timothy Wilson discusses “scared straight” programs designed by prison inmates to scare teens away from crime. In 1978, inmates from a New Jersey prison helped to form a program in which teens visit the prison and meet with inmates sentenced for life. In a typical session, the inmates graphically describe the rape and murder that happens within prisons. The idea is that this “shock experience” will scare kids away from beginning a life of crime.
But it doesn’t work, says Wilson: “A review of seven experimental tests that measured how likely participants and nonparticipants were to commit crimes, in time periods ranging from three to fifteen months after a scared-straight intervention, found that the kids who attended the interventions were more likely to commit crimes than were kids in the control group in every single study.” He concludes that the scared-straight programs appear to make the problems worse.
Wilson has a theory about this surprising finding. What could be happening, he says, is that a teenager who never really thought of himself as interested in crime subtly changes his mindset to, “Hmmm, maybe I am tempted by a life of crime if these convicts are going to such extreme measures to talk me out of it.” In other words, emphasizing to young people that “prisons are really, really bad, and you don’t want to go there” frames them as forbidden—and therefore increase their (perverse) attraction.
The same dynamic, Wilson says, is at work with D.A.R.E. programs. The popular program, which stands for “Drug Abuse Resistance Education,” sends police officers to schools to tell kids about the dangers of alcohol and drugs. More than one billion dollars is spent annually on D.A.R.E. programs—despite the fact that studies show that it’s mostly ineffective. One study of 83 schools found that youth who did not smoke cigarettes or drink alcohol at the beginning of the study, and who participated in the D.A.R.E. program, were more likely to be smoking and drinking than youth in a control group who did not participate in the program.
Why the disappointing results? Again, Wilson speculates that the program inadvertently increases drugs’ attraction. As he says, “Think about a kid who is already feeling a bit alienated and believes that smoking or drinking is going to make him popular with the Tylers and Taylors in his class—the cool kids. It won’t be an easy sell for a police officer to convince him otherwise, because to an at-risk, disengaged kid, the police represent the authority they are rebelling against.”
Scared-straight programs appear to make people more, not less, likely to use drugs and commit crimes.
Does this mean that telling people about the harmful effects of a thing is doomed to fail? Not necessarily. Wilson notes that effective substance abuse programs do talk about the negative effects of smoking and abusing drugs. Importantly, though, they not only tell young people to say no, but teach them the assertiveness skills for how to say no. They also try to dispel myths about how popular smoking and drinking are among their friends.
I can think of at least two implications for people interested in strengthening marriages and families.
First, we cannot assume that merely delivering a wealth of statistics about the problems of doing a thing will persuade the person to “just say no.” For instance, we cannot assume that telling a person thinking about moving in with a new partner about the relative instability of cohabiting relationships will change that person’s mind. Ditto with telling a married parent considering divorce about the effects of divorce on children. In fact, if the findings on other scared-straight tactics are any indication, only delivering the bad news could increase interest in cohabitation and divorce. A person might think, “Well, surely it can’t be that bad. My boyfriend and I have a deep love for each other, and we’re different.” Or, “I know my kids, and they’re different. We’ll show them.” Focusing on the harms could give a person something to prove.
Second, it’s wise to accompany gloomy facts with a “here-is-how-you-can-be-different” vision. Say a single father is considering moving in with his girlfriend after only a few months of dating. You might want to point out the relative fragility of cohabiting relationships, and the risk of putting one’s child through another difficult disruption. But you should probably spend more time presenting a different, and hopefully more attractive, possibility.
For example, you might say something about the benefits of building trust within a dating relationship, and with the benefit of time. Keeping your own living arrangements for longer, you might point out, allows you to keep a measure of your independence until you are both fully confident that you want to depend on one another for life. You would also want to be practical: if your friend doesn’t have a place of his own and has been sleeping on friends’ couches and in basements (an alarmingly common circumstance among the poor and working class young adults I know, and one that incentivizes quick cohabitation), you should help him think through how he could secure stable housing through another way. (And yet another reason that conservatives should care about a just wage.)
Effectively casting a positive vision, as opposed to relying on scare tactics, requires helping a person to see the connection between certain behaviors (getting married, making their child go to school every day) and their own deeply held aspirations (lifelong love and a happy family, their child’s success in life). The difference might seem subtle, but the difference in “story prompt” is significant. Scare tactics appeal to a person’s fear, rather than to their hope. Statistics are unlikely to scare someone straight, unless they’re accompanied by support and a hopeful vision of the future.