The influence of a mentor presence on a mentee’s behavior

Braun, T. & von Oertzen, T. (2021).  Empathy, cognitive functioning, and prosocial behavior in mentored children. New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development, 2021, 41– 57.

Summarized by Maggie Bayly

Notes of Interest:

  • Youth mentoring has been popularized around the world. While most have relied on self-reporting, using other measures (such as objective skill measurements) may provide even more reliable evidence that emphasizes the effectiveness of mentoring.
  • This study evaluates the impact mentors’ presence has on mentees’ empathic accuracy, cognitive functioning, and prosocial behavior in a controlled lab setting.
  • It also focuses on the effect of mentoring duration and measuring empathy accuracy, cognitive functioning, and prosocial behavior.
  • Results show that the presence of a mentor is directly correlated to an improved performance from the mentee across all three domains. Similarly, the longer a relationship is, the better the child performs cognitively when their age is controlled for.
  • Improved performance and behaviors include an increase in empathic & cognitive skills and the ability to behave in a more prosocial manner.

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)

Assessing the effect mentors have on their mentees is methodologically challenging: most programs merely provide relatively short mentoring durations (typically in the range of 1 year), age ranges are usually rather small, and examining dyads with anything other than questionnaires has proven to be challenging in the past. Thus, although some excellent causal studies do exist, in general causal research is limited in the field and studies are opened up to social desirability. Using a controlled laboratory setting, the current study investigates the causal effect of a mentor’s presence on the mentee’s empathic accuracy, cognitive functioning, and prosocial behavior. The sample is characterized by a wide age range for mentees and long mentoring durations. Results support the hypothesis that mentees’ performance is improved in all three domains when their mentor is present as compared to when their mentor is absent. Furthermore, mentoring duration was positively associated with the mentee’s cognitive functioning when controlling for the mentee’s age. The current findings extend our knowledge of the benefits of youth mentoring programs and demonstrate the necessity to include laboratory research when investigating mentoring dyads.

Implications (Reprinted from the Discussion)

The present study investigated the effect of youth mentoring when performance measures are used instead of questionnaires. It postulated that the presence of the mentor causes an increase in the mentees’ performance in the domains of empathy, cognitive ability, and prosocial behavior. Further, it was assumed that a longer mentoring duration is associated with higher performance of the mentee even in the mentor’s absence. The results strongly support the first hypothesis. In all three domains, the mentees performed better with their mentor present. The second hypothesis was supported strongly for the cognitive domain, but only with some remaining error probability for the domains of empathy and prosocial behavior.

The current study provided some insight into questions left unanswered by nonexperimental designs. Results indicate that the presence of a mentor causes improved performance in children in a wide range of domains and for a wide age range of children. To a lower quantitative degree present results indicate that children perform better the longer their relationship lasts, which in this study, due to the long-term mentoring program used, was considerably longer than typical time spans found in the existing literature. All measures in this study were assessed objectively and in controlled conditions, so that (1) the effect of social desirability was diminished (see Raposa et al., 2019, for the importance of this), and (2) measures were reliable enough to provide strong quantitative evidence even with a fairly small sample size.

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