A role model is an individual who is perceived as exemplary or worthy of identification or imitation. It is a conscious or unconscious emotional attachment not necessarily involving direct personal contact; for example, identification with sports or entertainment figures is common. Mentors, a subset of role models, deliberately support, guide, and shape younger or less experienced individuals as they weather difficult periods, enter new arenas, or undertake challenging tasks. Mentoring may include elements that are instrumental (e.g., career advice, networking contacts, financial assistance) and psychosocial (e.g., emotional support, companionship). Having a role model or mentor is a commonly identified protective factor contributing to resilience—that is, successfully responding to challenges or overcoming adversity—and mitigating risk, particularly in ethnic minority adolescents experiencing poverty or familial dysfunction.
Role model selection reflects critical elements of psychosocial functioning and self-perception, particularly ethnic identity. Individuals generally identify sociodemo-graphically similar role models, and socioeconomic status (SES) is associated with having a role model. In a study of a representative sample of Los Angeles adolescents, African American teens almost exclusively chose African American role models (96%), whereas two thirds (64%) of Latinos chose an ethnically congruent model. Overall, 75 percent of Latinos chose a role model of color, with 11 percent having chosen African Americans. Four in five whites identified a white role model. About one in five teens chose relatives as role models, the most common choice. Whites were more likely than African Americans or Latinos to have known extrafamilial role models. Lower SES and being male were associated with selecting a figure role model available primarily through the media, as opposed to a known individual. Consistent with these findings, a qualitative study found that the type of role model (family member or figure) most often identified by low-income African American males differed in high school and college samples: Identified role models for the college students were primarily, though not exclusively, family members (Taylor, 1989). Extrafamilial models tended to be ethnically similar to the young men. Enduring and substantive role models were less frequently identified in the high school sample than in the college sample. Still, even as subjects of fleeting interest, African Americans—mainly entertainers and political or religious figures—were most often chosen. Regarding the other primary sociodemographic characteristic, gender, boys are more likely than girls to choose a gender-congruent role model. This difference is only found for the figure category of models. For known role models, boys and girls choose same-sex or opposite-sex persons at about the same rate. The greater availability of powerful male figures in the popular media and in sports, in particular, and the greater status that our society affords to men may explain this finding.
That learning occurs through observation and imitation or modeling of revered others has been well established by social learning theorists. For example, a parenting study demonstrated that teen fathers often come from families in which there were role models for teen parenthood; for example, first-time teen fathers were three times as likely to have older brothers who were themselves teenaged parents. Certainly, the effectiveness of role models in encouraging the adoption of commercially desirable but risky behavior (e.g., cigarette smoking and alcohol consumption) is well known to the advertising industry. Commercial marketing utilizes inspirational and aspirational role models in product “branding” and sales promotion. Inspirational role models are quite similar to the target audience (“people like us”); social distance is minimal and “cultural” values and traditions are shared, thereby increasing motivation and enhancing self-efficacy. Peer modeling, in which youth or adult lay health advisers (promotoras ) are used in outreach, embodies this construct. In contrast, aspirational role models have culturally valued attributes that are coveted by but less prevalent in the targeted population, for example, a higher position within a work hierarchy, extraordinary athletic or musical talent, or physical attractiveness.
The evidence for the utility of role modeling is growing. Evidence that suggests the positive influence of ethnically matched role models may be seen in the educational persistence of graduates of historically black colleges and universities. Although only one in five African American undergraduate students are enrolled in these institutions, one in three black college graduates hail from these institutions, as do more than half of those earning doctorates and more than two thirds of all black professionals. Several recent empirical studies also support the positive influence of role models on certain measures of resilience in ethnically diverse and, particularly, high-risk adolescent populations. This influence may operate largely by enhancing ethnic identity among African American, Latino, and Native American youths. Having a role model, particularly one known to the adolescent, has been linked to higher self-esteem and academic performance, decreased substance use, fewer behavioral problems in school, higher levels of physical activity, and lower levels of engagement in early or high-risk sexual activity. Extrafamilial known role models were just as positively influential as family members. Even a figure role model is associated with some lowered risk, though they exert less influence than known role models. Ethnic congruence of role models does not seem to affect outcomes, but because it is apparent that adolescents for whom ethnicity is most salient strongly gravitate to role models of the same ethnicity, sufficient variability to test this hypothesis is unlikely to be found.
Many young people do not have role models or mentors. Exposure of low SES ethnic minority youngsters, in particular, to positive role models and adult images of their own ethnicity—a task previously performed by racially segregated but socioeconomically heterogeneous churches, neighborhoods, and schools—is increasingly recognized as critical to their development of a stable identity. Social service programs of many varieties have been developed to address this gap through, for example, faith-based organizations, schools, government programs, and unaffiliated community-based efforts. One-to-one mentoring (e.g., Big Brother/Big Sister, center-based programs at YMCAs/YWCAs and Girls’/Boys’ Clubs) is a common programmatic approach to providing this resource. However, these programs place tremendous time and energy demands on mentors, who also face their own family demands and often professional struggles with discrimination. Thus, there is limited availability of appropriate one-to-one mentors, given the scarcity of volunteers and increasing socioeconomic homogeneity of ethnic minority neighborhoods. School-based “career day” programs, another common approach, present useful opportunities for role modeling. They do not, however, provide the continuity and personalization of contact necessary for a sustaining influence. Small-scale self-image–enhancement approaches that directly or indirectly utilize role models have been used with measurable success with high-risk African American and Latino youth, and are integral parts of many community institutions. Such emerging “hybrid” role-modeling or mentoring interventions (e.g., many culturally grounded “rites-of-passage” programs) are less taxing to volunteers than one-to-one involvement, but offer more consistent and personal contact than “career days.”
Positive images and examples of ethnically diverse individuals of both genders are needed. Attention should be directed to developing and systematically evaluating innovative and cost-effective approaches, both standalone programs and programs in conjunction with the provision of other services, via media or in person. Feasible and effective interventions to expose youth to appropriate role models are early in their development, and the process by which youths identify role models is not well understood. Because the process of selecting and emulating a role model provides critical—and potentially socially constructive—access to the self-images of young people, progress in this area is central to advancing the field of adolescent health promotion.
SEE ALSO Attachment Theory; Resiliency
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Antronette (Toni) Yancey