How teaching kids better decision-making may prevent crime later | Interview with Dr. Alex Piquero

We met with influential criminologist and distinguished scholar from the University of Miami, Dr. Alex A. Piquero, to discuss childhood behavior modification, how cost/reward decision making may prevent criminal behavior in later years, and so much more. Enjoy!

How teaching kids better decision-making may prevent crime later | Interview with Dr. Alex Piquero

Leading criminologist Dr. Alex A. Piquero offers insights into cost/reward decision-making through SNAP® (Stop Now And Plan) and how the program can keep kids from criminal behavior. He also discusses socialization training, early childhood behavior modification, backfiring in interventions, and working as a couple in academia (with his wife, fellow criminology scholar Dr. Nicole Leeper Piquero). Chair of the sociology department and Arts & Sciences Distinguished Scholar for the University of Miami, Dr. Piquero talks with Dr. Jed Macosko, academic director of AcademicInfluence.com and professor of physics at Wake Forest University.

See Dr. Piquero’s Academic Influence profile

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Top Influential Criminologists Today

Interview with Criminologist, Dr. Alex A. Piquero

Interview Transcript

00:00 JM: Hi, I’m Dr. Jed Macosko from AcademicInfluence.com and Wake Forest University. And today we have Professor Alex Piquero, and he’s coming to us from Miami, and he’s a criminologist. So Alex, it’s great to have you here today. Thanks for coming.

00:16 AP: Thanks Jed. Pleasure to be here with you at Academic Influence.

00:19 JM: Well, we are glad to have you. And so I hear that you started your academic career at Temple University. So how did you end up down at Miami? What was the route you took?

00:29 AP: Yeah, so it’s been 25 years in this really great business of academia. So I actually have a spouse too. Her name is Nicky Piquero and she’s also a criminologist and a worldwide expert on white-collar and corporate crime. And so my first academic job at Temple, she was still finishing up in graduate school at the University of Maryland, where I went to school. And once she was done, the academic couple market, we got recruited to go to Northeastern University, ’cause one of my colleagues at Temple, Jack Greene, had moved to Northeastern to assume the position of the dean there. So he took me along with him from Temple and my wife came along. And then we were there and then we got recruited to the University of Florida in Gainesville where we spent six years. And that was a great experience. And then we were recruited away from University of Florida to go to John Jay College in the City University of New York Graduate Center. And so we got to live in New York City for a bit of time.

01:23 AP: Then we got recruited again, I got recruited back to my home at the University of Maryland. And so it was good to be back as a faculty member rather than a student. And then my wife went to Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. She had different kinds of opportunities that she were to explore there. Then we got recruited again to go to Florida State University in Tallahassee, and then we got recruited again to go to the University of Texas at Dallas, where we were for nine years, and now we just got recruited again last year, here to the University of Miami. And so 25 years later to get to the University of Miami. It’s been a great experience, ’cause everywhere I’ve gone, you learn a lot about just the feel, the university’s administration. And so I actually think that aside from the pain of moving and learning everything all over again, you learn not just an academic, but you learn about what it’s like to be in the community of scholars at a larger university. And so each of us have had administrative positions, and so it’s really…It’s been helpful for us to say, “Okay, well, now I know what they do at other places and these places,” and so as you know, every place has its different kind of way of doing things. And so it’s helped me grow as a scholar and an institution rather than as where we spoke at the beginning of our careers, narrow on our work. So that’s my journey, 25 years.

02:40 JM: Wow, that was fascinating. Thanks for sharing that with us. And you mentioned that your parents are from Cuba, were refugees. Did they move to South Florida after leaving Cuba or?

02:50 AP: Yeah, so an interesting story. So they were teenagers and they were dating in Havana. And then Fidel Castro took power and that was the end of their lives there. My dad was a pro baseball player, and that means the end of his career. And so my mom went to Miami, my dad went to Jamaica to Spain, to New York City. So they each went in different routes for family reasons. So my mom went to Miami and then ended up in DC and my dad went to New York and then ended up in DC, ’cause they still stayed in touch by writing letters way back then. And so I grew up in the DC area. And so it’s really interesting ’cause they have the classic immigrant story of coming in the United States. And growing up as a kid, I lived with my mom and dad, but also my mom’s mom and dad.

03:37 AP: So I’m that classic, second generation kid where I had the old world and that influence, and then I had the new world of assimilating to the American culture. My parents wanted me to learn English and we’re American citizens but I still had this really strong Cuban tie that was, at home, I talked Spanish or the Cuban version of Spanish with my grandparents. But anyway, we grew up very modestly, and so my parents were believers in education. Work hard, work harder, and when you think you’ve worked hard, work some more, ’cause there’s always someone working harder than you. And so that’s how I grew up. I didn’t know any other different kind of way. Back then I was like, “Oh my gosh, mom and dad, you’re putting me through the wringer.” But looking back, I wouldn’t trade what their sacrifices and what they did for myself and my brother for anything.

04:30 JM: That’s great. Now you say that you work with why people commit crime and how to stop that. And the key is socialization for young children and helping parents know how to socialize their children. So can you give us some concrete examples of what programs you’ve watched and studied and may be implemented.

04:53 AP: Yeah, there’s a range but they all do the same thing. The one I’m really, really high on right now is wanting candidates that’s actually been really well and rigorously evaluated with experimental methods using different samples and different locations and now it’s spreading throughout the United States. It’s called Stop Now and Plan. And it’s basically very simple. It’s like you’re putting kids in situations in a lab and then in the real world, and you are giving them situations where they mean more likely to choose a reward as opposed to delay the reward for something down the road. And so basically, you snap your fingers, “Okay, what are my options? Option one, option two. So if I were to choose this, what are the consequences and the rewards of that? And then what are the consequences and the rewards of this?” And so what you’re trying to do is you’re trying to get kids…Programmed is the wrong way, ’cause that sounds too robotic, but you’re trying to get them socialized to think about the long-term consequences of their action. And then as opposed to the short-term benefits that they may reap.

05:57 AP: So the good example I use to people, especially when I’m lecturing undergrads, is a lot of people go to the cheesecake factory and you go there not to eat salad, right? So you go to the cheesecake factory, ’cause you’re gonna have this 1000 calorie bomb of a cheesecake. And so you know what’s there. And so what do you have to do to account for that? Well, I’ll eat less during the day, I’ll do a longer run, or whatever it is. So you’re trying to get people to choose things in a different kind of way and get their thinking to think about, “Okay, if I do this, these are the costs, and these are the rewards.” The reward of a cheesecake is one minute. The negative effects will last a little bit longer. You’re implementing that with kids in decision-making. That’s why you tell students, “Kids, you have to finish your homework before you can watch TV.” So you gotta do the work first and then get the reward rather than getting the reward then doing the work.

06:49 AP: And so that’s what Stop Now and Plan and these other programs called Triple P parenting, is you’re getting parents the tools they need to then help socialize their kids in a direction. This is not about telling parents what to do, it’s about giving them tools about how you might go about doing this because there’s no book that you can download from the sky and says, “Okay, this is what you do when your kid’s crying.” Could be thousands of different reasons why the kid is crying. And so that’s what these programs do. There is a cost to them early on, but the cost benefit analysis grows wider and stronger over time. And as our research shows, if you can prevent a kid by the age of 14 from going down a lifetime of being a criminal career or a hard drug user, you’re saving society four, five million dollars a year because of the court cost, the societal cost, the parenting, all these costs. And so in my mind is, I’m willing to spend a few hundred dollars, a few thousand dollars early in life if I know…And that’s just the right thing to do. This isn’t a liberal thing or a republican thing, it’s about socializing kids, so that they’re better citizens. And then they will contribute to our world, your world, my world in pro-social ways in different domains. So that’s what these programs do. They are very, very effective. They don’t backfire, it just takes political will to say, “Yeah, we’re gonna invest in this and we’re gonna do it.”

08:13 JM: And what are some of the things like in this Canadian Stop Now and Plan, that they would have kids and parents do? Give us a real concrete example.

08:22 AP: So they would put them in a particular lab and go through a series of situations where they might have a task before them and a reward before them, or they might be in a situation where they’re going through a role-playing and they might interact with a anti-social peer who says, “Okay, let’s go do this,” and they do this thing, is not a pro-social thing. And so you’re trying to interact with the parent, “Okay parent, this is what you should do. This is how you should say this.” And then you’re debriefing with the child, “Okay, why did you do this and why didn’t you do this?” So that’s the kind of…This is a cognitive skills training, and it’s just repetitive training. And that’s why I said earlier, it’s a little bit like raising a puppy. The puppy comes home, the puppy has no idea what to do. You have to socialize the puppy. Sit, don’t bark, go to the door, go to the bathroom. And so it’s just socializing the child, because when the child comes out of the womb into the world, it doesn’t know anything. So you have to train the child.

09:21 AP: And so that’s what these program are doing. And what they’re doing Jed, is they’re doing them earlier. Not doing when they’re nine years old, they’re doing them when they’re three years old, four years old, five years old, pre-K. So you’re trying to get them as early as possible because as you know, brain development functioning, is firing on all cylinders in those first five years of life. And so it’s so much…It’s like language acquisition, it’s so much easier to learn a language early in life as it is to our age, ’cause that’s the way the brain is developing. And so if you can help the social skill development and the cognitive decision-making component of the brain earlier on, it’s much easier than to undo things later down the road.

09:58 JM: Interesting, and this program in Canada, and the 3P parenting…

10:03 AP: Triple P.

10:04 JM: Triple P. How often does a parent come and if this is an at-risk kid, I’m imagining the parents might not be together or they might have lots of jobs that they’re trying to hold down, so how do you possibly get this program to work?

10:20 AP: Yeah, so that’s always hard. So the studies have started out with very small samples obviously, but they’ve grown and replicated to larger samples. And so what you can do, sometimes they are only child-based ’cause you don’t have the parent or parents or guardians to be there, so sometimes it’s administered in a school setting, sometimes administered in a clinic setting. But the parents need the socialization too. And so they work best when you have both of those things combined. A lot of this training is funded by the government, especially in Canada, some jurisdictions in the United States that are experimenting with the Stop Now and Plan program are using state resources to provide that to parents. And so it’s at no cost to them. As you know, you want to avoid the selection effect of who enters that program.

11:10 AP: And so it’s been much easier in other parts of the world to do randomized experiments. It’s a little bit harder in the US to do that, but they are starting to go down that road. And so the recruitment thing has been…Earlier on, it was a little bit harder to draw the samples in in a kind of scientific way that you and I would want ideally done, but now it’s getting there. And as more and more people know about the program, and as more and more politicians and policy makers and practitioners know that this is something they can use in their arsenal, the better off we will be at expanding this. The province of Quebec, did it, lots of countries in Europe are doing it, it’s now, like I said, going into different parts of Florida and other parts of the United States. It’s slowly but surely spreading, and that’s because the initial evidence base was so strong. No backfire effects, works for boys, works for girls, works across race and ethnicity. So now it’s just a matter of scaling up, and that’s always the issue. Scaling up involves resources. And as you know, we live in a world of finite resources.

12:13 JM: That’s right. What does backfiring mean, just so we would…

12:16 AP: Backfiring means that sometimes intervention programs actually have the exact opposite effect. So instead of preventing anti-social behavior or improving socialization, they actually make the problem worse. And so that’s what a backfire effect is. And then there are some interventions, not just in criminology, but in psychology that actually had backfire effects. So you’re making the problem that you’re trying to prevent actually worse. So that’s why it’s really important not always to know, does the program work? We also wanna know, does it have…Not have the opposite effect? Because you don’t wanna make the problem worse, you don’t wanna mess people up. So it’s a lot like a drug trial. We’re living through the COVID-19 experience right now and the vaccinations. You don’t want a vaccine to have an adverse effect, right? Some vaccines have an adverse effect on people’s bodies. And so that’s an important part of the trials in the medical world, we want that same thing in the social human world.

13:07 JM: Very cool. Well, thank you so much for taking time today, Alex, to talk about criminology and specifically the kind of programs that you’re helping and your career. Absolutely. Amazing, thank you so much for joining us.

13:19 AP: My pleasure, thank you very much.