Walter Mischel, a revolutionary psychologist with a specialty in personality theory, died of pancreatic cancer on Sept. 12. He was 88.
Mischel was most famous for the marshmallow test, an experiment that became a pop culture touchstone. But, he said, the thrust of the experiment and its results were often misinterpreted. (You can hear Mischel explain why in the video by Marcie LaCerte at the top of this page).
Born in Vienna in 1930, his family fled to the United States when Mischel was only 8 years old. After graduating from New York University with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in psychology, he went on to get a Ph.D. from the Ohio State University in 1956.
Mischel’s education left him frustrated with the orthodox research models of the time, many of which were influenced by the likes of Freud. Mischel believed these models failed to adequately consider context, both the particular experimental situation and people’s internal goals.
So, he set out on different path in 1960, using preschoolers from Stanford University’s Bing Nursery School as his study subjects.
His idea, which you’ve probably heard of, was simple enough. First, you sit a kid in front of a delicious marshmallow. Then, you tell her she will get two marshmallows if she can resist eating the marshmallow while you leave the room.
His experiment was a test of delayed gratification and, over the years, the test epitomized the idea that there are specific personality traits that we all have inside of us that are stable and consistent and will determine our lives far into the future.
Despite some follow-up studies that failed to replicate the results, the lesson our society has drawn from the marshmallow test is that children who are able to delay their own gratification are destined to be more successful as adults than those that can’t.
There was just one problem with that conclusion, as Mischel himself explained to Alix Spiegel, in an episode of the podcast Invisibilia called “The Personality Myth.” He told her: “That iconic story is upside-down wrong — that your future is in a marshmallow — because it isn’t.”
So why does this myth seem to persist?
Well, it seems one crucial detail was left out of conversation. Some kids were given strategies to help them resist the tempting treat, such as closing their eyes, while others were not. And, it was the kids who were best at deploying these strategies who had greater success in later life.
“People can use their wonderful brains to think differently about situations, to reframe them, to reconstrue them, to even reconstrue themselves,” Mischel said.
Nearly fifty years after the publication of his early iconic work, Mischel was still on the forefront of correcting the entrenched orthodoxy of static personalities, as well as the psych myth that his famous study had become. In 2014, he wrote The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control.
“What my life has been about is in showing the potential for human beings, to not be the victims of their biographies — not their biological biographies, not their social biographies,” he said. “And to show, in great detail, the many ways in which people can change what they become and how they think.”
Julie Carli is an intern with Invisiblia.