Following the mass shooting in Newtown, expressions of public outrage and sadness have been rampant. The demand for action appears unprecedented. But as we start 2013, we need to ask ourselves why the collective outrage from past tragedies in Aurora, Virginia Tech and Columbine did not translate into the level of action we need. Unlike some of the new year's commitments we make as individuals, doing something effective about the epidemic of shootings and killings that plagues this country every day is a resolution we can't afford to break.
One place to look for guidance is the study of why we succeed and fail in keeping other common resolutions like losing weight, eating healthier, quiting smoking or saving money. According to John Tierney of The New York Times, by the end of January one third of us will have broken our promises to ourselves. By July, it jumps to more than half.
What doesn't work? Making vague, sweeping declarations, over-depending on willpower or focusing too much on the negative consequences of failure. We heard the message. It was communicated by the most credible voices I can imagine: those of 20 first graders, seven women and their families and friends. It was loud. It is compelling. Now we need to transform the outrage and sadness into hope. Too many of us share a core belief that violence is outside our control. We need to get past that.
People who do succeed in their new year's resolutions have hope, but they are also realistic. One reason they don't rely only on willpower alone is that, as Tierney notes, it's not just a metaphor but "a real form of mental energy, powered by glucose in the bloodstream." Willpower is a resource that can run out as a result of the level of exertion required for what Charles Duhigg called the need to "painstakingly practice a better response" in his book The Power of Habit. People who keep their resolutions have a practical plan and get support from friends, family and sometimes professionals.
Lastly, people who succeed often benefit from general shifts in social norms in society and incentives that raise the social costs of "bad behavior." When eating healthfully and doing yoga become hip, or when cigarettes are transformed into an uncool, expensive and inconvenient habit, keeping those new year's promises is easier. In our culture violence is a pathway to respect that we promote all too frequently, especially among our boys and young men, something Mallika Dutt raised in a recent piece on this website. That needs to change.
If we want to transform our collective outrage and sadness into hope and make progress on reducing violence in America, we should start with ideas that have produced results and build from there.
Part of the plan needs to be about changing aspects of the way we support families to raise their children. This means starting at the beginning. One example of how to do this is the Nurse Family Partnership, a program that has provided intensive support to first-time at-risk mothers in the United States for over three decades. The program teaches mothers (and fathers) to avoid behaviors that harm their babies and support them to develop resources and skills to be better parents. Impact evaluations reviewed in The Lancet medical journal have shown reductions in child maltreatment in the first two years of life of up to 48 percent. Over time, longitudinal studies have demonstrated economic returns of $5.70 for every dollar invested, including reduced costs associated with involvement in violence as teenagers and adults. We need to do more of this.
However, long-term strategies for the prevention of violence, like the Nurse Family Partnership, are not enough. Young children learn violence from the older kids and adults around them who model violent behavior. If we want to change the future, we need to find ways to model different behaviors now. This means rethinking the way we engage the young people at greatest risk of doing violence in our communities today. These young people, mostly boys and men, need to hear from credible sources that violence is unacceptable, and for reasons that matter to them. And when they ask for help changing their lives, we need to make sure they have it.
Organizations like Cure Violence, a national NGO operating in 15 cities, have shown how this can work. Cure Violence hires "interrupters," men and women with credibility on the street, and trains them to detect and stop violent events. Meanwhile, outreach workers support those who ask for help to connect to social services, and communities organize activities like Peace Summits to reinforce the norm that violence is not OK. An evaluation of the Baltimore Health Department's replication of the model recently published by the New York Academy of Medicine found reductions of up to 56 percent in homicides and 34 percent in nonfatal shootings in less than two years. We need to do more of this.
As President Obama said at the Newtown vigil, "we're not doing enough, and we will have to change." By all means, let's do something about the guns, but if we truly want to change, regulating access to firearms won't be enough, just like willpower alone is not enough to keep our new year's resolve. Programs like the Nurse Family Partnership and Cure Violence are two examples of strategies that get results. They are scientific proof of hope, and there is more where that comes from. Now is the time to use it.
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