Two logical fallacies that mislead the field of mentoring

by Jean Rhodes

“A red herring is something that misleads or distracts from a relevant or important issue. It may be either a logical fallacy or a literary device that leads readers or audiences towards a false conclusion. ” Wikipedia

Two logical fallacies in the field of youth mentoring have perpetuated myths, placed unrealistic expectations on average volunteers, and 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: the merging of two or more sets of information, texts, ideas, etc. into one.
    We have been led astray by semantics–specifically the tendency to merge natural and assigned 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 1980’s, when new program models began to expand and diverge from BBBS’ terminology of  “Bigs” and “Littles.” 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 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 an 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. Which brings us to a cousin of this red herring.
    2. The outlier fallacy
    Outlier: an observation that is well outside the expected range of values of a study or experiment, a person whose abilities, achievements, etc. lie outside statistical probability. 

    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 exceptionally strong to be effective. Shared goals and a “good enough” relationship will do the trick.

Together, the conflation and outlier fallacies have several 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 the best of treatment and prevention science. More than a decade ago, psychologists John Weisz and Joe Durlak (2005) argued  that “the time is right to consider linking, both conceptually and empirically, two often separate but clearly complementary approaches to the promotion and protection of youth mental health: treatment and prevention. Connecting the science and practice of prevention and treatment will be good for science, for practice, and for children, adolescents, and their families.” It is also mentor programs’ best shot for improving the youth outcomes. Since programs are essentially an aggregation of individual and group helping relationships that are organized and delivered through preventive interventions, they sit at the nexus of treatment and prevention.

In previous columns, I have discussed the benefits of drawing from prevention science–a field that provides a rigorous template for assessing and targeting youth needs and evaluating and disseminating successful program models (Cavell & Elledge, 2015). But what can we learn from treatment science? Let’s start by recognizing that mentoring relationships share many commonalities with therapeutic relationships. In their classic book, Persuasion & Healing, psychiatrists Jerome and Julia Frank (1973) noted that all helping relationships have four things in common: a “confiding relationship with a helper,” who “genuinely cares about their welfare, and has no ulterior motives;” a “healing setting,” or context that is somehow set apart by time or location; a “rationale, conceptual scheme, or myth that provides a plausible explanation,” for whatever difficulties led the person to seek out a helping relationship; and, finally, a ritual or intervention that both parties believe will be an effective means of restoring health. These ingredients create positive expectations that induce positive development. 

Mentoring programs serve a large proportion of youth who are struggling with mental health and behavioral challenges and, although there are limits to the clinical analogy, volunteer mentoring and therapeutic relationships share important commonalities. For example, they are often situated somewhat outside the youth’s network of family, friends, and neighbors, yet are supported by another kind of infrastructure: the therapist’s professional community and the volunteer’s mentoring program. In addition, both volunteer mentoring and therapeutic relationships involve a working relationship that is characterized by inherent power differentials, a focus on one member’s improvement, and scheduled, often weekly, “sessions.” Thus, mentoring researchers can draw on clinical treatment research to inform the development of skills-based interventions.

Since mentoring satisfies these conditions, this framework suggests that formal mentoring occupies a place in the pantheon of healing interventions. And, although rarely acknowledged and not yet particularly systematic, formal mentors frequently draw on array of therapeutic approaches. For example, as a mentor encourages her mentee to think and act in more adaptive ways, she is likely employing principles of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Likewise, efforts to encourage mentees to be more forgiving and accepting of themselves may pull from self-compassion and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), and so forth. (Wampold, 2015).

To the extent that programs more fully embrace the best that treatment and prevention science have to offer, and avoid the pitfalls of conflation and outlier fallacies, they will be more effective in delivering the care that so many youth need.