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Walter Mischel: biography of this psychologist and researcher

Walter Mischel: biography of this psychologist and researcher

June 14, 2024

Walter Mischel (1930-2018) was a psychologist of Austrian origin who developed important research on stimulus control, delayed reinforcement and self-control, especially in childhood and adolescence. He is considered one of the main psychologists in the clinic of cognitive behavioral approach and one of the most cited authors of the twentieth century.

We'll see now a biography of Walter Mischel , as well as some of his main contributions to psychology.

  • Related article: "History of Psychology: authors and main theories"

Walter Mischel: life and work of this clinical psychologist

Walter Mischel was born on February 22, 1930 in Vienna, Austria. Eight years later, he and his family moved to the United States due to the recent Nazi occupation. He was the youngest of three brothers, children of businessman Solomon Mischel and Lola Leah Schreck who was a housewife.

Mischel grew up in Brooklyn, New York from the year 1940, where she studied high school, as well as university education at the state university, while working in the business of his family. Despite having started her medical studies, Mischel ended up taking an interest in psychology, especially in its clinical application.

Thus, in 1956, Mischel earned a doctoral degree in clinical psychology from Ohio State University , where he was trained by one of the most recognized psychologists in cognitive behavioral clinic, George Kelly. Likewise, Julian Rotter, a psychologist remembered for laying the foundations of control locus theories, was a determining factor in his professional training.

Thereafter he served for two years as a professor and researcher at the University of Colorado, for two years at Harvard University and during the same time at Stanford University.

International recognitions

In 1983, Mischel was a professor at Columbia University, and in 1991 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Subsequently, in 2004, he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, and from 2007 to 2008 he was president of the Association for Psychological Science .

Finally, in 2011 he received the Grawemeyer Psychology Award from the University of Louisville, for his work in stimulus control, retarded reinforcement, self-control and willpower. In the year 2002, Mischel was classified by the American Psychological Association in the 25th place of the list of the most cited psychologists in this discipline during the 20th century.

The marshmallow experiment (Marshmallow Test)

At the end of the 60's, Mischel conducted an experiment through which he wanted to observe the effects of retarded reinforcement, also called delayed gratification .

The latter is the ability to abstain from receiving a rewarding element immediately, in order to receive another more desired element even though it implies a longer wait. We will see below what this experiment was about and the implications it had for cognitive-behavioral psychology.

Does self-control influence learning?

This experiment consisted of the following: children between four and six years of age were selected and taken to a room where there was only one table and one chair. On the table there was a marshmallow, an oreo cookie or some other treat previously selected by the child.

The researchers left the child alone inside the room, after giving him the following options: ring a bell to call the researcher and on his return eat the candy, or, wait until the volunteer return of the researcher, and receive one more treat. Obviously, the second option implied an immediate gratifying experience, while the second implied a gratifying experience. For this reason, the terms "delayed gratification" or "delayed reinforcement" are used.

As a result of the experiment, some children decided to wait up to 20 minutes and receive two treats instead of one. These were called "high retarders". Further, to hold the wait they developed several distraction techniques , like covering your eyes with your hands, singing or shouting, looking around the chair to avoid turning towards the marshmallow, among others. In contrast, other children decided to avoid the long wait (they waited less than 1 minute to call the researcher) and preferred to eat only one. The latter were called "low retarders".

But the experiment did not end there.Under a longitudinal design, which allowed to know the effects of waiting through time, the same children (now adolescents) were studied again. In this new study, he found a relationship between the ability to wait (retarded reinforcement) and better school performance in numerical terms (ie, better scores or grades in academic tests). Similarly delayed gratification it was linked to greater resistance to substance abuse and greater satisfaction in interpersonal relationships.

Not only that, but further research with the same participants have linked the high retarded reinforcement with increased activity of the prefrontal cortex, which is the anterior part of the frontal lobes of the brain and is related to complex planning, decision making and the social adequacy.

Broadly speaking, these studies show the conclusion that self-control and willpower are one of the keys to academic and personal achievement. The test or experiment of the marshmallows has been subsequently replicated with some variants that allow to analyze in depth the mechanisms of self-control and its implications for learning.

They have also allowed to analyze some dilemmas and complexities of self-control related to the immediate pleasures offered by impulsive decisions, and the difficulties that are planned when prolonged waiting times are not finally gratified.

  • You may be interested: "The delay of gratification and the ability to resist impulses"

Some gender differences in the Marshmallow Test

Another issue that has been possible to analyze through this experiment and some of its replicas, is the cultural interpretation of delayed gratification according to gender .

When a girl decided to wait to receive gratification, such behavior was interpreted by adults as "a great intellectual capacity", "high competence", "ingenuity". On the other hand, those who opted for immediate gratification were understood as "emotionally labile," "moody" or "complaining" (Conti, 2018).

In contrast, children who delayed gratification were described as "shy," "reserved," "obedient," or "anxious," while those who decided to obtain reinforcement immediately were described as "vital," "energetic," "Animated", "self-affirming" (ibid.).

The foregoing may reflect the values ‚Äč‚Äčassociated with self-control within the American culture. For example, it may indicate a greater acceptance of impulsivity among children, and a greater approval of tolerant behaviors among girls . The latter can generate guidelines to explain learning and behavioral patterns differentially reinforced by gender.

Bibliographic references:

  • Conti, R. (2018). Delay of gratification Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved September 18, 2018. Available at //
  • Rohrich, R. (2015). So ... are you failing the Marshmallow Test? Connecting and Disconnecting in Our Information-Rich World. Journal of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, 135 (6): 1751-1754.
  • Walter Mischel (2018). Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved September 18. Available at //

Walter Mischel - The Marshmallow Test (June 2024).

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