Walter Mischel, 1930–2018
The psychologist who tested our willpower
Walter Mischel called his most famous experiment “simplicity itself.” In a series of studies in the 1960s, the Stanford University psychologist and his colleagues would present a preschooler with a treat—a pretzel stick, cookie, or marshmallow—and a choice: eat the treat now, or wait 20 minutes and get two treats. Fewer than a third of the children resisted the urge toward instant gratification. Two decades later, Mischel checked in on about 100 of the kids who’d participated in what became known as the “marshmallow test.” He found that those who had delayed gratification went on to enjoy greater academic and professional success and were less likely to suffer from obesity or addiction. “If we have the skills to allow us to make discriminations about when we do or don’t do something,” Mischel said, “we are no longer victims of our desires.”
Born in Vienna to a Jewish businessman father and homemaker mother, Mischel “enjoyed a comfortable life until the rise of Nazism,” said The Washington Post. His family fled Austria in 1938 and settled in New York City, where they ran a five-and-dime store. After graduating as his high school’s valedictorian, Mischel studied psychology at New York University and Ohio State. He joined the faculty at Harvard in 1962 “at a time of growing political and intellectual dissent,” said The New York Times. His colleagues included LSD guru Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (aka Baba Ram Dass). The psychology department “kept getting crazier, it was impossible to work,” Mischel said, and he quickly moved to Stanford.
Mischel’s marshmallow test subjects were drawn from a Stanford nursery school, said The Boston Globe, which led critics to argue that his “sampling was too small and too demographically narrow.” Even Mischel conceded it was “an unbelievably elitist subset of the human race.” Yet he later obtained similar results from experiments with children in the poverty-stricken South Bronx. In the process of his work, Mischel developed numerous distraction strategies to boost self-control. Children found it easier to resist the marshmallow when they imagined it as a cotton ball, he noted, and Mischel weaned himself off his three-packs-a-day smoking habit by recalling an image of a lung-cancer patient. The more often these techniques are used, he said, the more effective they become. “We’ve found a way,” Mischel said, “to really improve human choice and freedom.”