The “Scared Straight” myth and what we should understand for Behavioural Change in Safety

Back in the late seventies and early eighties teenage crime in the USA was starting to become a real concern.  A famous (or now infamous) campaign was initiated to Scare Straight the teenagers who were considered the most likely to follow a life of crime.  They were taken in small groups to the most notorious of prisons Behavioural Change in Safety(Rahway) and penitentiaries throughout New York and New Jersey.  They were exposed to all the trauma and discomfort of life in jail and told powerful stories from hardened criminals telling them precisely how BAD things would be if they didn’t change their behaviour and find themselves behind bars!

The Scared Straight Results

The campaign was declared a great success and was celebrated widely without properly gathering rigorous empirical evidence to support such claims.  The initiative attracted huge funding and was replicated throughout America and in Europe as it just felt like it was the obvious thing to do.  There was a whole TV series based on the programme.  Mathew Syed describes in much more graphic detail in his book “Black Box Thinking” (a cracking read for any safety professional) the many flaws of this research.

In fact, now, a much more rigorous longitudinal study conducted by a significantly more credible research Fellow of Criminal Justice (Prof James Finckenauer) suggests that the programme actually encouraged the teenagers to continue their criminal behaviour and many went on to serve lengthy custodial sentences for violent and sex related crimes.

There are several reasons suggested as to why this programme failed so badly and had the opposite effect on the behaviour of the people it targeted. Among the reasons are that the visit to the jails had a desensitising effect on the teenagers.  There’s also a widely held belief that the shock tactics encouraged the teenagers to convince themselves (sub-consciously at least) and their peers that they were tough enough to tolerate such conditions.  Some of them saw it as a challenge that they needed to prove that they weren’t really that scared of what they’d seen and could survive and possibly thrive in that environment!  Chapter 8 of Black Box Thinking gives much more detail for those interested.  There is a very tragic end to the story that is still deeply disturbing today!

So, what can we learn from this for safety performance?  Many of us will have seen and heard of similar situations in safety.  We scratch our heads at why people still take unnecessary risks despite seeing all the films of what can happen to them.  The same people have attended lectures and seminars and even heard first hand evidence from survivors of tragic accidents.

Of course exactly the same principals apply here, the effect on behaviour following such experiences whether it be in the training room or conference hall is often short term at best and we run exactly the same risk of desensitising and encouraging the very people that we are trying to influence most to continue to undertake unsafe behaviours.

As safety professionals, we need to understand the things that can really start to motivate people to shift from a HAVE TO mindset to a WANT TO mindset for safety.  There are better ways of influencing behaviour these days which are much more reliable and sustainable.

Thank you for reading, if you’re curious about better ways of influencing behaviour and improving safety performance we’d like to meet you on one of our scheduled IOSH Accredited Behavioural Safety Leadership Courses

5 thoughts on “The “Scared Straight” myth and what we should understand for Behavioural Change in Safety”

  1. Louis Chamberlain

    The punishment or threat of punishment school of thinking is so deep-rooted in workplaces today, It will be an uphill battle to change current views. We as safety professionals have a moral duty to fight that battle and pioneer change!

  2. This was taken to the next level during the reign of Thatcher, when the government introduced “Short sharp shock”. Institutionalised bullying and abuse intended to scare young offenders out of their life of crime.

  3. The threat element is a short burning fuse. It imports short-term thinking and in some cases resentment to those likely to inflict the punishment. The result is less engagement and more negative empowerment, whereby those under threat will retreat to silos and end up revoking their old ways of working. We should be continually asking people why they act in the way they do, and what they could suggest that prevents any future contraventions.


    Fully agree that the Punishment or threat of Punishment is ineffective in the long run and do not produce the desired results . Tens of videos depicting unsafe acts have been shown to workers in the construction companies and they have been warned of disciplinary actions ( and in many cases actions taken ) BUT incidents do happen again and again. So , intrinsic motivators are really needed and stakeholders engaged in the process for constructive consequences.

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