This researcher is known especially for his work on delaying gratification.
Walter Mischel (1930-2018) was an Austrian-born psychologist who developed important research on stimulus control, delayed reinforcement, and self-control, especially in childhood and adolescence. He is considered one of the leading psychologists in the cognitive-behavioral approach clinic and one of the most cited authors of the 20th century.
Next we will see a biography of Walter Mischel, as well as some of his main contributions to psychology.
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 Salomón Mischel and Lola Leah Schreck who was a homemaker.
Mischel grew up in Brooklyn, New York since 1940, where he studied high school, as well as college training at state university, while working in his family’s business. Despite having started her studies in the medical area, Mischel ended up becoming interested in psychology, especially in its clinical application.
Thus, in 1956, Mischel obtained a doctor’s degree in clinical psychology from the Ohio State University, where he was trained by one of the most recognized psychologists in the cognitive-behavioral clinic, George Kelly. Likewise, Julian Rotter, a psychologist remembered for laying the foundations of locus of control theories, was decisive 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 for the same time at Stanford University.
In 1983, Mischel was a professor at Columbia University, and in 1991 he was elected as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Later, 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 Award for Psychology from the University of Louisville, for his work in stimulus control, delayed reinforcement, self-control and willpower. In 2002, Mischel was ranked 25th by the American Psychological Association on the list of the most cited psychologists in this discipline during the 20th century.
The Marshmallow Test (Marshmallow Test)
In the late 1960s, Mischel conducted an experiment in which he wanted to observe the effects of delayed reinforcement, also called delayed gratification.
The latter is the ability to refrain from receiving a rewarding item immediately, in order to receive another more desired item even though it involves a longer wait. We will now see 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: boys and girls between the ages of four and six were selected and taken to a room where there was only one table and one chair. On the table was a marshmallow, an oreo cookie, or some other treat previously selected by the child.
The researchers left the child alone in the room, after giving him the following options: ring a bell to call the researcher and, on his return, eat the treat, or wait until the researcher’s voluntary return and receive one more treat. Obviously, the second option involved an immediate rewarding experience, while the second involved a delayed rewarding 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”. In addition, to endure the wait they developed various distraction techniques, such as covering their eyes with their hands, singing or screaming, looking around the chair to avoid turning towards the marshmallow, among others. Instead, other children decided to avoid the long wait (they waited less than 1 minute to call the researcher) and preferred to eat just 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 over time, the same children (now adolescents) were again studied. In this new study, she found a relationship between the ability to wait (delayed reineme) and higher school performance in numerical terms (that is, better scores or grades on academic tests). Similarly, delayed gratification was linked to greater resistance to substance abuse and greater satisfaction in interpersonal relationships.
Not only that, but subsequent research with the same participants has linked delayed high reinforcement to 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 social adequacy.
Broadly speaking, these studies conclude that self-control and willpower are one of the keys to academic and personal achievement. The marshmallow test or experiment has been subsequently replicated with some variants that allow an in-depth analysis of the mechanisms of self-control and its implications for learning.
They have also allowed us to analyze some dilemmas and complexities of self-control related to the immediate pleasures that impulsive decisions offer, and the difficulties that are planned when long waits are not finally gratified.
Some gender differences in the Marshmallow Test
Another issue that has been possible to analyze through this experiment and some of its replications is the cultural interpretation of delayed gratification based on gender.
When a girl decided to wait to receive the reward, such behavior was interpreted by adults as “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 get reinforcement immediately were described as “vital”, “energetic”, “Animated”, “self-affirming” (ibid.).
This may be a reflection of the values associated with self-control within American culture. For example, it may indicate a greater acceptance of impulsivity among boys, and a greater approval of tolerant behaviors among girls. The latter can generate guidelines to explain learning and behavior patterns reinforced differentially according to gender.
- Conti, R. (2018). Delay of gratification. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved September 18, 2018.Available at https://www.britannica.com/science/delay-of-gratification#ref1206154.
- 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 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walter_Mischel.