Recently we have learned much about the role of human agency in helping people make lasting change in their behavior. The key insight is that unless people have complete freedom to decide what is right and wrong, they do not internalize standards of moral behavior. The development of character requires that people have the ability to decide how they should behave and make a personal commitment to do so without any form of external threats or coercion.
For the past eight years, my colleagues and I have been involved in a highly successful research project on prisoner recidivism. We developed a cognitive-behavioral rehabilitation program called RealVictory that has two major elements: a cognitive training program that consists of six 90-minute training sessions plus a cell-phone coach program that involves giving parolees cell phones and having them answer automated phone calls. Participants receive two calls per day and they are asked three or four questions with each call. The questions come from a list of questions that they have developed for themselves as a result of a goal-setting session. They use their cell-phone pad to answer the questions, 1=yes and 2=no, and their answers are recorded on the internet.
The cognitive training sessions teach participants a very simple model for analyzing their behavior. This model, called the Control Model, claims that everyone has four basic needs and all human behavior is directed toward satisfying one or more of these needs. People also have a belief window that contains the if-then assumptions they have learned regarding the consequences of their actions and whether these actions will satisfy their needs. According to the model, their beliefs lead to behavior, and their behavior leads to consequences. If their consequences are satisfying their needs, they are encouraged to continue. But since their needs are not being met, they are encouraged to examine their belief system and decide what they need to do differently to achieve better results.
The cognitive training is intended to be value neutral. During the six training sessions, participants are not told what they should believe, how they should act, or what will be the consequences of their actions. The trainers try to avoid telling participants what they think is right and wrong or how they should change their behavior. Rather, the participants are expected to discover this on their own or with the help of other participants.
This value-neutral form of training is very different from the moral relativism that is taught in ethics courses. The RealVictory program assumes that there are natural consequences associated with behavior and participants are expected to learn them on their own. Requiring participants to decide for themselves how to act and what to change is an essential element of this training.
The benefit of this program has been demonstrated in a study of 260 juvenile delinquents who were randomly divided into experimental and control groups. The recidivism rates of the training groups were less than half of the control groups plus they had fewer rearrests and longer times to the first re-arrest. The results also indicated that the more phone calls the youth answered, the less likely they were to be rearrested. In exit interviews at the end of one year, we learned that most of the youth only remembered a very small amount of the cognitive training, but they remembered the goals they set and how well they had achieved them since they received daily reminders.
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Overall, it appears that the major benefit of this program is that it helps delinquent youth decide for themselves to improve and then it keeps them on track. They are the ones who decide; they manage their own lives. The primary benefit of the cognitive training is that it helps youth understand that there are natural consequences associated with misbehavior and it brings them to a decision point of wanting to change. At that time, they create a long-term goal along with specific daily tasks that move them in the direction of their long-term goal. The phone-coach program provides daily reminders of their goals and measures their success. As they succeed, they are rewarded by phone-mail messages from support people congratulating them on their success. When they are struggling, they receive encouragement messages from their support people.
The Declaration of Independence asserts that all people are born with certain inalienable rights, including the rights to life, liberty, and property. Another fundamental right is the right to decide for oneself what is right versus wrong. Since all rights have corresponding obligations, people not only have the right to decide what is right, they also have an obligation to exercise this agency and decide what they will think and how they will behave.
The development of character depends greatly on the exercise of moral agency. Positive character attributes become internalized as personal moral standards as people think about them and decide that they are important to them. Moral standards can become internalized to the extent that when people violate them they feel pain; somehow they feel compromised and internally violated. The internalization process requires conscious deliberation and choice. Obviously, external pressures will destroy this internalization process because people will do what they need to do according to another person’s desires rather than their own motives. Human agency is a vital element in character development. $