How cognitive biases shape our beliefs about mentoring

by Jean Rhodes

When we hear the word  “bias,” we instinctively think of such things as racial prejudice or slanted news coverage, but our brains are actually remarkably susceptible to all sorts of cognitive biases (Yagoda, 2018). Indeed, cognitive biases are very much at work in the field of youth mentoring. Formal and natural mentoring relationships share the same mythical namesake, so we often conflate our expectations for the work of average volunteers with everyone from the Goddess Athena and our own childhood champions to the diehard community-based mentors of yesteryear, whose intuitive, free-wheeling approach seemed to know no bounds. I stubbornly supported  this conflation, drawing on attachment theory and decades of research on natural mentors to support my hunch that formal programs could and should consistently offer the same. In my defense, the early mentoring researchers who influenced me back in the 80’s and early 90’s were psychiatrists and psychologists who came of age when clinical training lacked the rigor it does today. So rather than encourage an alignment with more effective, targeted paraprofessional approaches, my early conceptions of mentoring programs aligned with broad and difficult to falsify psychoanalytic and humanistic frameworks.

Such conceptions have continued to shape the field. Researchers Li & Julian (2012) described the ideal mentoring relationships as a reciprocal human interaction characterized by an “enduring emotional attachment.” From their perspective, the relationship is the only “active ingredient” in mentoring programs, and “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.” Likewise, DuBois & Keller (2017, p. 1490) noted that “Formal mentoring programs exist to intentionally replicate the types of naturally occurring supportive adult relationships that developmental research has demonstrated to be so important for healthy youth outcomes.”  The fact is, however, that many adults simply don’t have the bandwidth or  “emotional capital” to forge enduring emotional attachments with unrelated children, particularly since chemistry is never a given. At the end of the day, we are hard pressed to fully give ourselves over to anyone outside our tightly knit worlds.  We may never be able to intentionally replicate those more organic ties but our attempts to do so has granted the field unusual immunity from disappointing findings. 

Even when the evidence occasionally breaks through, its hard for us to let go of the sunk costs of time and resources that we have already invested into programs that have repeatedly shown only modest benefits. So we, filter out, reframe, discredit, and dismiss (Shepherd & Kay, 2012). It’s important to recognize that such sunk cost and confirmatory biases have an evolutionary advantage. It’s a “basic human survival skill…we push threatening information away; we pull friendly information close. We apply fight-or-flight reflexes not only to predators, but to data itself” (Lupia, 2015). When we see disappointing findings we reflexively dismiss them, rationalizing that we are not measuring the right outcomes, that the effects will emerge over time, etc, making it difficult to falsify our intuitions (Dawkins, 1976; Lynch, 1996 ).

The net result of the field’s confirmation bias has led us to elevate facts and “evidence” that confirm our beliefs and to discount or ignore evidence that may support alternative views. Beyond complacency, there are other unintended consequences of holding up the emotionally close, enduring mentoring relationship as the only true active ingredient, thereby, minimizing the value of incorporating more goal-oriented, focused evidence-based approaches. When the normative expectation is of a close relationship, program staff may worry that saddling volunteers with too much structure will short circuit their natural instincts and relationship-building capacities. And, when mentors, programs, parents and even mentees are led to expect too much from the relationship, they may blame themselves when things fall short.

There’s also the problem of equity bias, the tendency to weigh all opinions (and by extension research findings, training curricula, evaluation findings) as equally valid, irrespective of the opinion holders or program developers’ expertise. This bias runs deep in mentoring and cuts both ways–people with relatively lower expertise often think they know as much as everyone else, while experts tend to rate themselves on par with everyone else (the Dunning–Kruger effect). Moreover, people tend to favor their own opinion over expert advice, even when they might benefit from following the advisor’s recommendation. In one study (Bahrami, 2015) participants assigned nearly equal weight to their own opinions versus those with more competence and expertise. This tendency persisted even after participants were told about the competence gap and even when they had a monetary incentive to maximize collective accuracy! The seemingly innocuous assumption that everyone deserves an equal say and that every data point deserves equal weight complicates decisions about how best to invest in mentoring programs that will maximize youth outcomes. 

Dispensing with intimidating exemplars and examining the cognitive biases that lead us to dismiss disappointing findings is an important step toward improving the practice of formal mentoring.