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Passing the Baton in Lane: Life Skill or Moral Lesson?

Olympians dropping the baton is like "Scared Straight"

I have written about "Scared Straight" programs, like those that expose kids to murderers in order to deter them from lives of crime - like those lived by their "instructors." Schools, parents, and - especially - prison inmates love these programs, which make criminals into moral arbiters.

Unfortunately, systematic investigations uniformly reveal such programs to be ineffective, and counterproductive. Careful comparisons of kids with equal delinquency/criminality levels who go through these programs find they are more likely to commit future offenses than those who don't.

At one level, presenting criminals as models of behavior - which they demonstrate by intimidating and threatening the teens paraded before them - invites the teens to imitate them. Although they claim their message is, "Don't be like me - look how lousy it is in the big house," the real message is, "Look how strong and dominant I am - be like me."

At another level, for the highest risk children, nothing takes place in these brief prison visits that is likely to reverse their life trajectories. What would they learn that would enable them to do better in their families, at school, in their spare time?

In other words, inmate "education" programs rely on a supposedly moral model of instruction (albeit a flawed one) - "we'll show them how bad it is to be this way so they won't do it." We use similar educational programs in drug education.

As opposed to this moral model, psychology generally relies on skills models, which teach people patterns of thinking and acting that have empirically demonstrated their effectiveness. People will do better, the inescapable evidence is, when they know how to function more productively.

Which brings us to the current world track championships in Berlin in which the American men's 4x100 meter relay team was disqualified for passing the baton outside the designated zone. Thus, although they ostensibly won their qualifying heat, they will not participate in the final medal-awarding race.

What do we learn from this experience? The moral lesson is "Don't make this mistake next time - see how bad it feels!" The USA Track and Field Association released a statement: "To be disqualified is something that is hard for all of us to accept, but at this point we can only use it as inspiration for future championships."

There, we won't do this bad thing again. Oh, did I mention, the United States men's 4x100 team failed to reach the finals because of a passing error in the Olympics last year in Beijing? The same thing happened in the 1988 Olympics and in the world championships in 1995, 1997, and 2005. I hope we don't do it again!

P.S. The U.S. women's 4x100 team did not get inspired the next day (or by their dropping the baton in the 2008 Olympics along with the men): BERLIN - The United States suffered a second relay catastrophe when their women's 4x100m team failed to make the world championships final on Saturday after dropping the baton in their semi-final.

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