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.
The conflation fallacyConflation: the merging of two or more sets of information, texts, ideas, etc. into one.We have been led astray by semantics. Although the term “mentor” has been around for ages, it actually did not come into widespread usage as a verb “to mentor” 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) and our brains became anchored to those exemplars. 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 to the diehard community-based mentors of yesteryear, whose intuitive, free-wheeling approaches seemed to know no bounds. But natural mentoring relationships are not developed in response to any particular program. They emerge from extended families, schools, teams, religious institutions, etc. where an alchemy of regular contact, chemistry, and shared interest fuels closeness. And we now have reams of data to suggest that, on average, formal mentoring is quite a different sort of endeavor–requiring matching, training, and careful oversight. The relationships are relatively short-term and, although they occasionally take on great meaning, the data clearly suggest that it is not the norm. Which brings us to a cousin of this red herring.2. The outlier fallacyOutlier: an observation that is well outside of the expected range of values in a study or experiment, a person whose abilities, achievements, etc., lie outside the range of statistical probability.For understandable reasons, programs often highlight their strongest, longest volunteer matches as stand ins for their typical matches, even though such matches do not represent the average. The website for the 2016 Gala Matches of a mentoring program describes one pair as having, “now been matched for over 5 years, and they couldn’t be happier. Andrew is not only a fixture in Jezreel’s life, but is also the person he turns to for advice as he prepares to head off to college (Jezreel is aiming for the Ivy League!). We know no matter where life takes them, these two will be a part of each other’s lives forever.” Or the other pair, “The two have been matched for over two years and in the words of their match support specialist, they ‘absolutely adore each other.’ Together, they’ve gone to movies in the park, visited art shows, and have even taken surfing lessons! Even when they’re apart, Michelle and Celine check in frequently with phone chats and text messages.” There is no disputing the power of such ties to transform lives.
True, there is no disputing the transformative power of enduring, emotional bonds. The problem is, such bonds are single percentage point 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. The idealized notions of close, enduring bonds may actually be problematic. When long-lasting emotional bonds are the normative expectation, staff may worry that saddling volunteers with too much structure will short circuit their natural instincts and relationship-building capacities. What’s more, although certain youth may only respond to deep, emotional ties, and we should select and train mentors accordingly. But for many youths, we may get a similar bang for our buck with less close ties (see latest study on the relational “sweet spot” by Mike Lyons and Sam McQuillin) .
Together, conflation and outlier fallacies give rise to idealized view of mentoring relationships. 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 a narrow focus on the extreme success stories may lead funders to downplay what it really takes to successfully operate a mentoring program and obscure the broader program and community needs. 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. Moving forward mentoring programs would be wise to neither equate volunteers with natural mentors nor expect enduring emotional bonds to emerge as a matter of course.
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. 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 our best shot for improving the youth outcomes.
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 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. Since mentoring satisfies these conditions, this framework suggests that formal mentoring occupies a place in the pantheon of healing interventions. What’s more, 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 care to the many youth who need it.