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NYC to Experiment With Nobel Prize-Winning 'Nudges' to Curb Gun Violence

By Aidan Gardiner | October 13, 2017 2:18pm | Updated on October 16, 2017 8:50am
 Marvin Joseph, 26, was arrested on attempted murder charges for critically injuring a man when he opened fire near Tompkins Avenue and Stockton Street on June 21, police said.
Marvin Joseph, 26, was arrested on attempted murder charges for critically injuring a man when he opened fire near Tompkins Avenue and Stockton Street on June 21, police said.
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NYPD

NEW YORK CITY — The city hopes to curb shootings in the five boroughs by harnessing a newly Nobel Prize-winning tool: "Nudges."

Officials tapped ideas42, a Financial District-based firm, to launch a "high-visibility" campaign aiming to discourage would-be shooters from carrying guns.    

The firm tries to develop projects for governments that improve human behavior using ideas pioneered by Richard Thaler, who won the Nobel Prize in economics on Oct. 9.

The Nobel committee lauded Thaler's idea of a "nudge," a term he coined in a 2009 book by the same name, which governments have used to craft policies that "help people exercise better self-control."

"He is an icon in the field and is deeply deserving of the recognition," said ideas42 managing director Anthony Barrows.

"Hopefully the renewed attention means that more decision-makers and policy-makers will start adopting the insights Thaler helped pioneer and popularize," Barrows added.

Neither New York officials nor idea42's staff would share specifics about the anti-gun program, saying it was still too early in the process, but Barrows pointed to his company's work with incarcerated teenagers in Chicago in 2016 as an example of what it might look like.

They hoped to bring down their recidivism rate with a series of group lessons around decision making.

In one lesson, inmates list the people who may be affected by something they've done. In another, they list things that have sparked violent outbursts.

"People respond in a kind of automatic or scripted way when they’re under stress," Barrows said.

"To the extent that we can, [we want to] get people to slow down their thinking and choose to act in a more thoughtful and reasoned way, less automatic. We think that we can help people avoid dangerous circumstances including things that lead to violence," Barrows added.

Though gun violence in New York has declined in the past two decades, the problem persists with 734 people having been shot as of Oct. 8, data shows. By the end of 2016, 998 people had been shot in the city, police said.

And authorities seized 3,886 in the five boroughs, up from 3,621 the year before, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

The ideas42 project would join a slew of others across the city that are already bringing those numbers down.

Not a single person has been shot in nearly a year in a once violent eight-block swath of Harlem thanks in part to the work of the nonprofit, Street Corner Resources.

They use a combination of tough law enforcement, educational opportunities and jobs to discourage would-be shooters from pulling a trigger.

“They ask, ‘What’s going on, is there a chance to get money?’” said Rob Moore, a worker with the nonprofit. “It’s an opportunity to get paid and get paid a decent amount that competes with their drug sales.”

This carrot and stick approach is key, according to Daniel Webster, director of Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research.

"The more people carrying guns, the more edgy people get. When you put edgy and ready access to a loaded gun together, that’s not a good thing. That leads to more shootings," Webster said.

The city should try to use ideas42 to convince would-be shooters that carrying a gun isn't normal, that their behavior is "out there," Webster said. 

"Generally, that makes people uncomfortable and they’ll try to get into a more comfortable norm," Webster said.

Webster is confident New York's new approach to gun violence will help, given the city's track record.

"When I look at the actors involved, it suggests to me that they are prepared to do more than just put something on a billboard or a social media thing, that they understand that they may need to shape these behaviors using a variety of tools," Webster said. 

But it won't stop shootings entirely, the behavioral scientists cautioned.

"Is that going to solve gun violence? Certainly not. But is it going to to be helpful for a population of young people that are at high risk? Probably," Barrows said.