Walter Mischel: biography of this psychologist and researcher

Walter Mischel (1930-2018) was an Austrian-born psychologist who developed significant research on stimulus control, delayed reinforcement, and self-control, particularly in childhood and adolescence. He is considered one of the principal psychologists of the Cognitive Behavioral Approach Clinic and one of the most cited authors of the 20th century.

Below we will see a biography of Walter Mischel, As well as some of his major 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, son of businessman Salomó Mischel and Lola Leah Schreck who was a housewife.

    Mischel has grown up in Brooklyn, New York since 1940, where he attended high school, as well as a college education at State University, while working in the family business. Despite starting his studies in the medical field, Mischel eventually became interested in psychology, especially its clinical application.

    Thus, in 1956, Mischel he obtained a doctorate in clinical psychology from Ohio State University, Where he was trained by one of the cognitive-behavioral clinic’s most recognized psychologists, George Kelly. He was also instrumental in his professional training Julian Rotter, a psychologist remembered for laying the groundwork for locus of control theories.

    From then on, he worked for two years as a professor and researcher at the University of Colorado, for two years at Harvard University and at the same time at Stanford University.

    international recognition

    In 1983 Mischel was a professor at Columbia University and in 1991 he was elected a fellow of 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 Prize in Psychology from the University of Louisville, for his work on stimulus control, delayed reinforcement, self-control and willpower. In 2002, Mischel was ranked by the American Psychological Association at number 25 on the list of the most cited psychologists in this discipline during the 20th century.

    The marshmallow test

    In the late 1960s, Mischel conducted an experiment to observe the effects of delayed reinforcement. also called deferred gratification.

    The latter is the ability to refrain from receiving one rewarding item immediately, in order to receive another more desired item even if it involves a longer wait. We will see below what this experiment consisted of and its implications for cognitive-behavioral psychology.

    Does self-control influence learning?

    This experiment included the following: Boys and girls between the ages of four and six were selected and taken to a room where there was only a table and chair. On the table there was a marshmallow, oreig cookie or 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 to eat the candy, or wait for the voluntary return of the child. . 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 experience, some children decided to wait up to 20 minutes and be given two candies instead of one. These were called “high retarders”. Outraged, to maintain the wait develop various distraction techniques, How to cover your eyes with your hands, sing or shout, look around the chair to avoid turning to the marshmallow, among others. Instead, other children decided to avoid the long wait (they waited less than a minute to call the researcher) and preferred to eat only one. These were called “weak retarders”.

    But the experience did not end here. As part of a longitudinal design, which made it possible to know the effects of waiting over time, the children themselves (now adolescents) were again studied. In this new study, he found a relationship between the ability to wait (delayed reinforcement) and better academic performance in numerical terms (i.e. better scores or grades on academic tests). Deferred gratification was linked to increased drug resistance and greater satisfaction in interpersonal relationships.

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

    Generally speaking, these studies conclude that self-control and willpower are one of the keys to academic and personal success. The marshmallow test or experiment has since been replicated with some variations which they allow an in-depth analysis of the mechanisms of self-control and its implications for learning.

    They also provided an opportunity to analyze some of the dilemmas and complexities of self-control related to the immediate pleasures offered by impulsive decisions, and the difficulties that are planned when prolonged expectations are ultimately not met.

      Some gender differences in the marshmallow test

      Another problem that could be analyzed thanks to this experiment and some of its replicas is the cultural interpretation of delayed gratification based on gender.

      When a girl decided to wait to receive a gratuity, this behavior was interpreted by adults as “high intellectual capacity”, “high competence”, “ingenuity”. On the other hand, those who opted for immediate gratification were seen as “emotionally labile”, “cranky” or “complaining” (Conti, 2018).

      In contrast, children who delayed satisfaction were described as “shy”, “reserved”, “obedient” or “anxious”, while those who decided to strengthen themselves immediately were described as “vital”. “Energetic”, “animated”, “self-affirming” (ibid.).

      The above may reflect the values ​​associated with self-control in American culture. For example, it may indicate a greater acceptance of impulsivity in children, and greater approval of tolerant behaviors in girls. These can generate guidelines for explaining gender-enhanced learning and behavior patterns.

      Bibliographical references:

      • Conti, R. (2018). Delay of gratuity. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Accessed September 18, 2018.Available at
      • Rohrich, R. (2015). So … do you fail the marshmallow test? Connect and disconnect in our information-rich world. Journal of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, 135 (6): 1751-1754.
      • Walter Mischel (2018). The free encyclopedia. Retrieved September 18. Available at

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