Deviancy training: understanding how preventive interventions harm
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Joan McCord’s follow-up study of the Cambridge–Somerville Youth Project showed that even well-intentioned, well-implemented prevention programs sometimes have harmful effects on participants. She reported that peer reinforcement of delinquent behaviors or bragging about delinquent behaviors that occurred during summer camp experiences provided as part of the project might explain the negative outcomes observed for treatment boys. We explored this “deviancy training” mechanism in the context of an evaluation of an after-school program. The study found that peer deviancy training does occur in the context of after-school programs, that it is more likely to occur during less structured activities, and that more violent behavior also occurs during these less structured times. Also, the amount of adult supervision that is afforded in after-school programs did not counteract the reinforcing effect of peers. Finally, we showed that while teaching a prevention curriculum that was part of the after-school program, the most effective group leaders provided positive reinforcement for students’ pro-deviancy expressions. A scale assessing beliefs that illegal, violent, and risky behaviors are common and acceptable in the peer group favored the control students in the programs in which group leaders were observed providing this positive reinforcement. Implications for prevention programming are discussed.