Study Shows That Mentoring Eliminates Social Inequality

A new study by University of Bonn proves how tremendously effective mentoring is for children.

by Ute Volz, May 27, 2016

This article originally appeared here.

Several media sources are already reporting on the long-term study conducted by Prof. Armin Falk (University of Bonn) and funded in part by the Benckiser Stiftung Zukunft. It is a study on the role of the social environment in the development of prosociality. The results are remarkable: the study proves how tremendously effective mentoring is for children. Now the first paper on the study is available online for discussion.

Since September 2011, a group of researchers headed up by Prof. Armin Falk of the University of Bonn has been studying the extent to which social inequality affects personality development in children. Falk and his colleagues also wanted to know to what extent an intervention as a one-year mentoring program would change this personality development. Over 600 children from different socio-economic backgrounds participated in the multi-part research project.

The results are quite remarkable. Not only do they show for the first time the causal relationship between the social environment and personality development in children, but they also provide concrete evidence for the tremendously positive effects that a randomly generated variation in the social environment can have. For a randomly selected group of children from a low socio-economic background, this variation came through participating in the mentoring program “Balu und Du” (“Baloo and you”). For one year, the children in the program spent several hours each week with a volunteer mentor. 

As a main focal point, the study looked at the differences in the children’s prosociality and how mentoring affects prosocial behavior. Compared to a control group of children from the same socio-economic background who did not receive mentoring, a significant increase in prosociality was observed in the children in the mentoring program. The increase was so great that by the end of the study it was no longer possible to tell the mentored children apart from the children from high socio-economic backgrounds. Mentoring thus completely leveled out a number of (negative) effects of social inequality. 

These findings are all the more astonishing given that volunteer one-on-one mentoring can be done in a relatively simple setting and at a low cost. For Prof. Armin Falk, this means that political responsibility needs to be taken in this area: Investments in improving the social environment of children from low socio-economic backgrounds pay off – even with intermittent interventions such as simple participation in a mentoring program.

The first paper on this long-term study was made available online on Tuesday, April 5, 2016. It was published as part of the Discussion Paper Series from the Institute for the Study of Labor (Institut zur Zukunft der Arbeit – IZA) and is entitled “The Formation of Prosociality: Causal Evidence on the Role of Social Environment”(Authors: Fabian Kosse, Thomas Deckers, Hannah Schildberg-Hörisch, Armin Falk). Click here for a direct link to the discussion paper (pdf).

Articles and reports on the study in the media: 

April 4, 2016, Süddeutsche Zeitung
In an article from April 4, 2016, entitled “Die Persönlichkeit spielt bei der Entstehung von Ungleichheit eine wichtige Rolle” (“Personality plays an important role in the development of inequality”), the Süddeutsche Zeitung reported on the study conducted by Prof. Armin Falk and his colleagues. The article (in German) ends with the researcher’s conclusion: “If the state puts money into low-cost mentoring programs, it can fight economic inequality in a new way.” 

March 3, 2016, DIE ZEIT
The results of the study on the effects of social inequality on personality development in children are also addressed in depth in an interview with Armin Falk published in DIE ZEIT. The interview was published in the print edition of DIE ZEIT on March 3, 2016, on pages 22 ff. with a quote from Falk as the title: “I only want for children who are just as good to have the same opportunities.” The interview (in German) can be found here.

February 18, 2016, Deutschlandfunk (German public broadcasting)
On February 18, 2016, Deutschlandfunk broadcast a radio report by Martin Hubert entitled “Wie Kinder sozialer werden” (“How children become more prosocial”). The report will be available in the archive for playback until August 26, 2016. We would like to take the liberty of making a correction here. In the report, Martin Hubert says that children from higher socio-economic backgrounds “did not become more prosocial” through mentoring. However, this was not examined in the study conducted by the University of Bonn. Only children from low socio-economic backgrounds participated in the mentoring program. The children from higher socio-economic backgrounds only served as a control group.