Cambridge-Somerville Youth Experiment Research Paper

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The Cambridge-Somerville Youth Experiment was a longitudinal study of 650 boys that began in 1935 in Cambridge and Somerville, two neighboring towns in the Boston, Massachusetts, metropolitan area. It was the first documented criminology experiment of that scale (Farrington 2003). A treatment group of at-risk “difficult” boys and control group were created, each with 325 boys assigned based on 160 matching characteristics. The treatment group received social welfare services including family guidance, medical and academic assistance, coordination of community agencies, and recreational services, provided by a friendly counselor sustained for almost 10 years; the control group received no special services. The goal of the study was to examine if delinquency could be prevented and if counseling was an effective approach to preventing delinquency (Powers and Witmer 1951). However, results were mixed, with no crime prevention benefits observed (McCord and McCord 1959), and it has largely been described as both well-intentioned and a failure (Dodge 2001).



Boys attending public and parochial schools in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and public schools in Somerville, Massachusetts, who were age six or seven at enrollment were eligible for participation in the study (Powers and Witmer 1951). At the time, Cambridge and Somerville were primarily working-class, factory towns (McCord and McCord 1959). “Difficult” boys were identified by schools and social service agencies in the two towns and referred to the study team (Powers 1949). The selection process was lengthy; it involved interviewing hundreds of boys that had been identified as difficult, conducting medical and psychological exams and home visits, and completing a camping trip in which detailed notes were taken about each boy (Cabot 1940; McCord and McCord 1959). This initial process happened without potential participants’ knowledge, but upon being contacted, the majority were willing to participate (Powers 1949). Participants were solicited beginning in 1935, and participants were enrolled between 1937 and 1939 (Powers and Witmer 1951).

Study Design

The study was designed by Dr. Richard C. Cabot and funded by the Ella Lyman Cabot Foundation, which was created in honor of Dr. Cabot’s wife. The study was originally designed to be implemented over the course of 10 years, although this plan was curtailed by World War II and lasted for just over 8 years (Powers 1949; Powers and Witmer 1951). Additionally, some boys dropped out sooner, and other boys were intentionally dropped from the sample after 2–3 years if they were definitively classified as nondelinquent (Powers 1949). The study design was a randomized matched study: the two boys closest to each other in terms of approximately 160 background characteristics were paired, and then one of them was assigned to the intervention group, and the other was assigned to the control group on the basis of a coin flip (Cabot 1940; McCord and McCord 1959). These pairs were categorized as likely to be delinquent, not likely to be delinquent, or future delinquency trajectory uncertain (Cabot 1940).


The structure of the intervention was to pair each boy in the treatment group with a trained counselor, who would then determine what services were most appropriate for each boy’s unique situation with an eye towards positive character development (Cabot 1940). The trained counselor used social welfare practices, including health, educational, family, and community assistance, guidance, and support; boys on average received five such years of counseling (McCord and McCord 1959).

However, the quality of the intervention varied in terms of frequency of contact between the counselor and student, length of time the boy participated in the program, the gender of the counselor, and counselor turnover (McCord and McCord 1959). The most intensive intervention was defined as weekly participation for at least 2 years, in which the counselor and boy had a close relationship that included discussing personal issues; however, only 12 of the boys met these criteria, and so potential analyses were limited but illustrative that this more intense level of treatment may be effective (McCord and McCord 1959). Most boys had done recreational activities with their counselors, approximately half received tutoring, and medical care and summer camps were also common among boys in the intervention group (McCord 2003). Some boys in the intervention group were sent to foster homes and/or private schools per counselors’ recommendations (Powers 1949), although this was done after attempting more moderate services (McCord et al. 1960). In comparison, the control group received “the usual services of the community” (McCord and McCord 1959).

Outcomes Of Interest

The primary outcome of interest was criminal behavior (as measured by criminal convictions) (McCord and McCord 1959), although additional outcomes were observed in follow-up studies. Other outcomes of interest included mental hospital visits, participation in alcoholic treatment, and vital statistics (e.g., marriage, death) (McCord 1978). Anecdotally, individuals and counselors credited the program with changing boys’ developmental trajectories (Powers 1949).

Key Findings

Although boys who participated in the intervention qualitatively credited the program to helping them in their development, there were null and/or harmful effects of the intervention for a range of quantitative outcomes, including criminal and health outcomes (McCord 1978, 2003). For example, there were no statistically significant differences between the intervention and control groups in criminal convictions (both ever being convicted and number of convictions) in their matched analyses and after controlling for additional potential confounders that had been identified more recently (McCord and McCord 1959). After a series of subgroup analyses, though, they found that boys who had met with their adult counselor once a week on average and boys who were younger when they enrolled in the program had statistically significantly lower incidences of criminal convictions compared to their counterparts (McCord and McCord 1959). In later follow-up studies, boys who received the intervention were more likely to have been convicted of “serious street crimes,” died at an earlier age, and been diagnosed with a mental illness, compared to the controls (McCord 2003).

Some of the programming characteristics that were later attributed to the study’s failure include that the boys were publicly identified as at risk and were given resources without being held accountable, and the boys also participated in activities together (e.g., summer camps) (Dodge 2001). Others noted that adverse effects associated with the intervention were most apparent for boys who participated in the intervention for the longest amount of time, with the most frequent visits, and with family cooperation (McCord 2003).

Additional studies took advantage of the matched pairs to consider subgroups of boys. For example, the boys who were in the intervention group and placed in foster care were compared to their matched pairs, and harmful effects of foster care placement were observed (McCord et al. 1960).

Since the Cambridge-Somerville Youth Experiment, several other programs have been rigorously evaluated, and other delinquency prevention program evaluations have also observed less-than-positive impacts, indicating that more research must be done and published in the academic literature, regardless of positive or negative results (McCord 2003). The Cambridge Somerville Youth Experiment has also inspired the development of new theories, like deviancy training, to explain what may have occurred then; these theories have since been applied to and tested in new contexts (Gottfredson 2010).


The Cambridge-Somerville Youth Experiment is considered the first major randomized experiment in criminology. It is commonly used to exemplify the importance of rigorous evaluation of well-intentioned programs, including use of evaluation to determine if the positive results desired are actually observed.


  1. Cabot PSD (1940) A long-term study of children: the Cambridge-Somerville youth study. Child Dev 11(2):143–151
  2. Dodge KA (2001) The science of youth violence prevention: progressing from developmental epidemiology to efficacy to effectiveness to public policy. Am J Prev Med 20(1S):63–70
  3. Farrington DP (2003) A short history of randomized experiments in criminology: a meager feast. J Adolesc Res 27(3):218–227. doi:10.1177/0193841X03027003002
  4. Gottfredson DC (2010) Deviancy training: understanding how preventive interventions harm. J Exp Criminol 6(3):229–243. doi:10.1007/s11292-010-9101-9, The Academy of Experimental Criminology 2009 Joan McCord Award Lecture
  5. McCord J (1978) A thirty-year follow-up of treatment effects. Am Psychol 33:284–289
  6. McCord J (2003) Cures that harm: unanticipated outcomes of crime prevention programs. Ann Am Acad Polit Soc Sci 587(1):16–30. doi:10.1177/0002716202250781
  7. McCord J, McCord W (1959) A follow-up report on the Cambridge-Somerville youth study. Ann Am Acad Polit Soc Sci 322(1):89–96. doi:10.1177/000271625932200112
  8. McCord J, McCord W, Thurber E (1960) The effects of foster-home placement in the prevention of adult antisocial behavior. Soc Serv Rev 34(4):415–420
  9. Powers E (1949) An experiment in prevention of delinquency. Ann Am Acad Polit Soc Sci 61:77–88
  10. Powers E, Witmer H (1951) An experiment in the prevention of delinquency: the Cambridge-Somerville youth study. Columbia University Press, New York

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