Three logical fallacies that persist in youth mentoring

by Jean Rhodes

Mentoring has come a long way in recent years. Programs are increasingly embracing evidence-based approaches and recent meta-analyses have shown the benefits of more targeted approaches. Nonetheless, there remain  three fairly persistent fallacies in our field that have distracted programs from the difficult work of creating effective, enduring relationships. But once we recognize and name them, perhaps we can begin to disrupt their outsized influence!

  1. The conflation fallacy. Conflation is the merging of two or more ideas into one. In mentoring, we have been led astray by the tendency to merge natural and formal mentoring into one idea. Although the term “mentor” has been around for ages, it actually didn’t come into widespread usage as a verb “to mentor” in interventions and a designation for volunteers until the 1980s. This led us to conflate natural mentors (i.e., those influential, cherished, enduring bonds of our youth) with formal mentors (relatively short-term, structured, working relationships). Formal and natural mentoring relationships share the same mythical namesake, so we reflexively assume that the work of the average volunteers shares something in common with everyone from the Goddess Athena and our own champions. But natural mentoring relationships are typically quite different–they emerge from extended families, schools, teams, religious institutions, etc. where the alchemy of regular contact, shared interests, and countless other factors fuel closeness. We now have reams of data to suggest that, on average, formal mentoring is not the same. Formal mentoring requires matching, training, and careful oversight. The relationships are relatively short-term (e.g., around 5.8 months in school-based mentoring) and, although they occasionally take on the contours of natural mentoring, that is not the norm. This brings us to a cousin of this red herring.
    2. The outlier fallacy.  For understandable reasons, programs often highlight their strongest, longest, most transformative volunteer matches, even though such matches rarely represent the average. There is no disputing the importance of such bonds. The problem is, they are the statistical outliers. Twenty years’ worth of mentoring program meta-analyses have highlighted the stubbornly low overall effect sizes of mentoring programs, and evaluations and secondary analyses have pointed to the persistently high rates (over 40%) of earlier than expected match closures. And, as Professor Mike Lyons and Sam McQuillin have noted, relationships don’t even have to be exceptionally strong to be effective. Shared goals and a “good enough” relationship will do the trick.

    3. The equity fallacy or bias is the tendency to weigh all opinions (and by extension research findings) as equally valid, irrespective of the opinion holder’s or program developer’s expertise. This runs deep in mentoring and cuts both ways—people with less expertise often think they know as much as everyone else, while experts tend to rate themselves on par with everyone else. Moreover, non-experts tend to have a bias favoring their own opinion, even when they might benefit from following more informed advice. In one study, a team of cognitive psychologists found that people assigned nearly equal weight to their own opinions as they did to those with more expertise. This tendency persisted even after participants were told about the expertise gap and even when they had a monetary incentive to maximize collective accuracy. While there are many forms of wisdom (practice, research, experience) the tendency to weigh our own over others complicates decisions about how best to help young people. This overconfidence in personal expertise is particularly rampant in mentoring, where the familiar, easy-to-visualize concept of a helping relationship leads well-meaning investors in mentoring to equate their success in other areas with their likely success in what seems on the surface to be a pretty surefire and straightforward approach to helping youth.

Together, these biases have some real downsides. When mentors, programs, parents, and even kids are led to expect that much from the bond, they may blame themselves when things fall short. Donors are quite readily seduced by extreme success stories, but too narrow a focus on success may lead them to downplay what it really takes to successfully operate a mentoring program, particularly given the number of youth who are referred with serious emotional, behavioral, and academic difficulties. Such stories are also intimidating to potential volunteers, myself included.  We all think in stories–and when tales of selfless mentors get lodged in our brains,  it’s hard to step outside this narrative and consider the readily available data regarding actual match lengths and outcomes. The fact is that many Americans feel that they simply don’t have the “emotional capital” to forge enduring emotional attachments with strangers. At the end of the day, we are hard-pressed to fully give ourselves over to anyone outside our tightly knit worlds. But many still have something valuable to offer. Dispensing with intimidating exemplars may actually help to attract a wider pool of everyday adults. So let’s stop equating volunteers with natural mentors and let’s stop expecting enduring emotional bonds as a matter of course.

Programs should instead harness research and best practice to deliver effective programs. More than a decade ago, psychologist John Weisz and his colleagues provided a roadmap to materialize this vision―one that the field of mentoring would be wise to follow―that involves: “Identifying effective programs that address the most common problems and disorders facing young people, paying careful attention to their effective adoption across different ethnicities and cultures… specifying the conditions under which programs are most effective and, importantly, the ‘change mechanisms’ that underlie these positive effects and … testing interventions across various contexts, and, once proven, disseminating them in ways that make them accessible and effective across a broad range of community and practice settings.[i]

[i] Weisz, J. R., Sandler, I. N., Durlak, J. A., & Anton, B. S. (2006). A proposal to unite two different worlds of children’s mental health. American Psychologist, 61(6), 644-645.