Mentoring and the New Science of “Wise Interventions”


In his influential paper, The New Science of Wise Intervention, Stanford psychologist Gregory Walton argued for the importance of first developing psychologically precise theories of change that target the processes (e.g., maladaptive thoughts, behaviors, feelings, environments) that impede thriving and then developing interventions that efficiently target and alter these processes. Changes in these processes can then become self-reinforcing, growing stronger with practice over time (i.e., recursive). For example, if an adolescent or young adult is suffering from mild depression, and then learns and practices mindfulness-based stress reduction to manage her feelings, the skills are not only effective in the short-term (Chi, Bo, Liu, Zhang, & Chi, 2018) – they can become reinforcing as they reduce feelings of sadness and stronger over time as she practices them in different contexts.

Consistent with the “wise intervention” approach, Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child (2018) has described a rigorous framework that guides the development of intervention young children. Prior to developing program materials and evaluation plans, interventionists must “pinpoint why, how, and for whom an intervention works and doesn’t work.” They then identify and articulate a “theory of change,” which, in turn, guides program development, implementation, and evaluation. They might not get it fully right the first time but collect data that tests the processes and are responsive to evidence that comes up during any stage of the project that indicates a need to revise, narrow, or expand the theory of change. The point is to be as theoretically precise as possible at every given stage in the project.

This emphasis on theoretical precision has important implications for mentoring programs, as they move from simply providing experience (i.e., hanging out with a mentor) to teaching or practicing self-reinforcing skills that can be retained and further developed long after the mentorship is over. Mentoring programs exist to redress difficulties and promote thriving at the individual and group level. As such, the most important question for a relationship-based intervention becomes, “what are the psychological processes that are preventing this child from thriving?” Consider for example, Connected Scholars (CS), a program designed to teach incoming students who are at elevated risk for college dropout (e.g., first-generation college students) the skills to approach caring adults and recruit teachers, student service staff, and others who can help them succeed. Compared to students who did were provided only with information, students who learned how to recruit support had stronger ties with faculty members and higher grade point averages one year later (Schwartz, et al., 2018). As one student summarized, “It’s not just the grades you make, it’s the hands you shake!” CS essentially redirected the natural proclivities of help-seeking avoidance in first –generation and other marginalized students and helped them develop and practice specific networking strategies. Through experience, students gained confidence in the benefits of mentors as well the skills to continue to recruit caring adults to meet their changing needs. These recursive psychological and social processes are thus amplified over time and can change students’ long-term approach to help-seeking.

 The notion of targeting recursive processes aligns with the theory of “developmental cascades” (Cicchetti & Maston, 2010). According to this theory, well-timed and targeted interventions have the potential to disrupt negative developmental cascades (i.e., series of recursive developmental events that lead to increasingly negative outcomes) and promote positive cascades (i.e., series of recursive developmental events that lead to increasingly positive outcomes). For example, without Connected Scholars, a first-generation college student, unfamiliar with academic help-seeking processes and social norms, might feel that she needs to “go at it alone,” and struggle through the esoteric academic and social expectations of college without help. She may not think to attend faculty office hours or ask for clemency when a family crisis derails her academic performance. We know from research that, unfortunately, this struggle often leads to distress, low academic performances, and eventually dropout (Engle & Tinto, 2008; Kuh et al., 2006). In contrast, if this student participated in Connected Scholars prior to entering college, she would have been exposed to experiential exercises and instruction designed to improve her help-seeking skills and beliefs, and would likely enter school feeling more willing and empowered to seeking help from faculty and staff. This increased student-faculty interaction might, in turn, give rise to ongoing opportunities and better grades, which then make her a more completive candidate for internships and assistantships that lead migh give rise to further mentoring experiences.

These targeted interventions that aim to trigger positive cascades of development (and/or end negative ones) can be contrasted with the more common experience of being paired with a mentor, as in the traditional friendship model. Traditional mentoring introduces youth to a supportive adult who provides new experiences but may only indirectly or occasionally change the underlying psychological and social processes that gave rise to their original referral to the program (McCord, 1978). Moreover, when the intervention is built around enjoyable experiences provided by a friendly, but time-limited volunteer, there is the real potential of disappointment and loss when it ends (Grossman, Chan, Schwartz, & Rhodes, 2012; Spencer, Basualdo-Delmonico, Walsh, & Drew, 2017). Targeted, precise interventions, are more robust because they are designed to address specific psychological processes and then to unleash the recursive dynamics that can persist and accrue (Walton, 2014). Particularly since the average match is relatively short-lived, the mentoring field would do well to embrace an approach that precisely targets underlying processes or to partner with and embed mentors in programs that are doing so.


By Gregory M. Walton (Stanford University)

From the abstract

Citizens complete a survey the day before a major election; a change in the survey items’ grammatical structure increases turnout by 11 percentage points. People answer a single question; their romantic relationships improve over several weeks. At-risk students complete a 1-hour reading-and-writing exercise; their grades rise and their health improves for the next 3 years. Each statement may sound outlandish—more science fiction than science. Yet each represents the results of a recent study in psychological science (respectively, Bryan, Walton, Rogers, & Dweck, 2011; Marigold, Holmes, & Ross, 2007, 2010; Walton & Cohen, 2011). These studies have shown, more than one might have thought, that specific psychological processes contribute to major social problems. These processes act as levers in complex systems that give rise to social problems. Precise interventions that alter them—what I call “wise interventions”—can produce significant benefits and do so over time. What are wise interventions? How do they work? And how can they help solve social problems?

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