Challenging the “Dodo Bird Verdict” in Youth Mentoring

by Jean Rhodes

In 1936, psychologist Saul Rosenzweig coined the term “Dodo Bird Verdict” to illustrate the frequent claims that all helping relationships are roughly equivalent in terms of their effectiveness. Rosenzweig evoked a scene in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, in which several birds and other creatures found themselves wet and uncomfortable after a swim. To dry off, they ran an impromptu and chaotic race marked by random start and end points. When it was over, the Dodo Bird announced that “Everybody has won, and all must have prizes.”

For many years, this pronouncement became a metaphor for the state of psychotherapy research and the long-simmering debates over the extent to which a the benefits of helping relationships flow primarily through common or “nonspecific factors” such as the quality of the therapist-patient relationship, therapist and client characteristics, and expectations  (Norcross & Lambert, 2006; Wampold, 2001) or through specific evidence-based strategies and techniques. Although, most would agree that the nonspecific factors are important to all effective interventions, empirical support for specific, evidence-based approaches continues grow.

Child and adolescent therapists’ uneven adoption of evidence has also allowed researchers to compare more standardized evidence-based approaches to “usual care” approaches, “where therapists were able to use their clinical judgement as they saw fit, not constrained by evidence-based interventions or manuals.” Although such therapists may incorporate proven approaches, they typically blend, modify, remix, and string them together based on their clinical intuition. As this evidence has accumulated, Weisz and colleagues have published increasingly convincing reviews and meta-analyses of the relative benefits of more carefully following evidence-based (EB) manuals and approaches over more intuitive usual care (UC). Such comparisons are relevant to the friendship versus skills-based debates in mentoring, as the more intuitive, improvisational usual care approaches are analogous to nonspecific friendship approaches.

In 2015, Weisz and colleagues reviewed five decades of randomized treatment programs for youth with emotional and behavioral problems. Again, youth-focused cognitive and behavioral treatments produced stronger effects than usual care approaches, with differences consistent across youth, parent, and teacher reports and persisting across post-treatment and follow-up assessments. Effect sizes were largest for treatments targeting one problem at a time such as anxiety (0.61), compared to those simultaneously treating multiple problems (0.15). After completing their most recent comparison of usual care and evidence-based approaches, Weisz and colleagues concluded that structured, evidence-based treatments, while showing room for improvement, are superior to intuitive, usual care approaches in treating children and adolescents. Although direct experimental comparisons are needed in the field of youth mentoring,  decades of research point to overall small effects for the usual care “friendship” approaches and suggest that the positive effects of most mentoring relationships are more often the result of direct impact on targeted processes.  Fortunately, as noted, mentoring appears to be on the same learning curve as child and adolescent psychotherapy.

Still, this is hardly a settled science. In an influential paper, psychologists Li & Julian (2012) compared the mentor-mentee bond to that of fluoride in toothpaste.  Other ingredients (e.g., color, taste) may add value, but they are not essential to the success of the match. They noted that the “enduring emotional attachment” is the only “active ingredient” in mentoring programs, arguing that “scaled-up programs and policies serving children and youth often fall short of their potential impact when their designs or implementation drift toward manipulating other ‘inactive’ ingredients (e.g., incentive, accountability, curricula) instead of directly promoting developmental relationships.” Heckman & Kautz (2013) reached similar conclusions noting that, “the common feature of successful interventions across all stages of the life cycle through adulthood is that they promote attachment and provide a secure base for exploration and learning for the child. Successful interventions emulate the mentoring environments offered by successful families.” It also fits my own and others’ earlier conceptual models, which have suggested that such bonds can create “corrective experiences” that help young people through earlier relationship difficulties. When programs view relationship-building as the main key to their success, structure and goal-setting can be seen as undermining rapport. Mentors in such programs are therefore discouraged from being overly problem-focused and receive relatively little upfront training on the assumption that their intuition and natural caring capacities constitute the best approach to building strong ties.

 Still others argue that the virtue of many mentoring programs is that they target a broad range of outcomes. Thus, the lack of specificity and broad focus on relationships and a range of outcomes is a feature, not a bug. Yet, decades of child and adolescent psychotherapy research has found that the “treatment of multiple problems concurrently produces strikingly smaller mean effects than treatment of any single target problem.”

Other holdouts for a more general, nonspecific approach argue that youth mentoring provides an easy onramp to service for both youth and volunteers that can guide them towards more intensive care and services down the road. Yet with so much attrition in mentoring relationships, particularly for the highest risk youth, there is no guarantee of this and there are opportunity costs of not doing the best we can when given the chance. Finally, some may argue that it is inherently difficult to quantify the effects of broad friendships in the short-term. Many evaluations depend on child self-reports of “soft” outcomes such as self-esteem, while other results may lay dormant—undetected in the short-term only to emerge later in life. Although a 30 year follow-up of the randomized Cambridge-Somerville Youth found negative long-term effects for mentoring, recent 20 year follow-ups of the original 1995 Big Brothers Big Sisters sample indicate possible positive changes in certain social (but not economic) outcomes. These latent benefits may, in fact, point to promising long-term effects from nonspecific approaches and additional research is certainly warranted. If that is the case, however, it is likely that more targeted, evidence-based programs would yield even more robust long-term outcomes as they disrupt problems and promote benefits earlier in the developmental sequelae. Given the choice, most parents and funders would support programs that produce stronger, more immediate benefits and investment returns than those whose effects may only reveal themselves on a few outcomes decades later. 

In making the case for more targeted, evidence-based approaches,   I am not suggesting that the mentor-youth relationship is unnecessary – only that, on its own, it has been an insufficient basis for youth intervention. The accumulated evidence points to the weaker effects of non-specific approaches, and cautions against stringing together low-fidelity or unproven interventions.  As the field of youth mentoring moves toward more targeted, skills-based directions, it may finally lead to the extinction of the Dodo Bird verdict.