Walter Mischel

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Walter Mischel
Born (1930-02-22) February 22, 1930 (age 85)
Vienna, Austria
Residence New York, New York, United States
Nationality American
Fields Delayed gratification, personality psychology, social psychology
Institutions Columbia University
Notable awards Grawemeyer Award in Psychology (2011)

Walter Mischel (German: [ˈmɪʃəl]; born February 22, 1930) is an American psychologist specializing in personality theory and social psychology. He is the Robert Johnston Niven Professor of Humane Letters in the Department of Psychology at Columbia University. A Review of General Psychology survey, published in 2002, ranked Mischel as the 25th most cited psychologist of the 20th century.[1]

Early life[edit]

Mischel was born on February 22, 1930[2] in Vienna, Austria,[3] When he was 8 years old his Jewish family fled with him to the United States after the Nazi occupation in 1938.[4][5] He grew up in Brooklyn, New York and studied under George Kelly and Julian Rotter at The Ohio State University, where he received his Ph.D. in clinical psychology in 1956.

Professional career[edit]

Mischel taught at the University of Colorado from 1956 to 1958, at Harvard University from 1958 to 1962, and at Stanford University from 1962 to 1983. Since 1983, Mischel has been in the Department of Psychology at Columbia University.

Mischel was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2004 and to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1991. In 2007, Mischel was elected president of the Association for Psychological Science. Mischel’s other honors include the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award from the American Psychological Association, the Distinguished Scientist Award of the Society of Experimental Social Psychologists, the Distinguished Contributions to Personality Award of the Society of Social and Personality Psychologists, and the Distinguished Scientist Award of American Psychological Association's Division of Clinical Psychology. He is past editor of Psychological Review and past president of the American Psychological Association Division of Social and Personality Psychology and of the Association for Research in Personality.

Mischel is the recipient of the 2011 University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award in Psychology for his studies in self-control.[6]

Contributions to personality theory[edit]

In 1968, Mischel published the controversial book, Personality and Assessment,[7] which created a paradigm crisis in personality psychology. The book touched upon the problem in trait assessment that was first identified by Gordon Allport in 1937. Mischel found that empirical studies often failed to support the fundamental traditional assumption of personality theory, that an individual’s behavior with regard to an inferred trait construct (e.g. conscientiousness; sociability) remained highly consistent across diverse situations. Instead, Mischel cautioned that an individual’s behavior was highly dependent upon situational cues, rather than expressed consistently across diverse situations that differed in meaning. Mischel maintained that behavior is shaped largely by the exigencies of a given situation, and that the notion that individuals act in consistent ways across different situations, reflecting the influence of underlying personality traits, is a myth.[8] Subsequently, Mischel's "situationist argument" has received extensive criticism, and the notion of trait constructs is now widely accepted.[9][10][11] As pointed out, "the age-old question of the role of situations in the appearance of invariance in personality structure has been revisited during the past decade and a new more wholistic theory put forward by Mischel and Shoda (1995). These authors have now conceded that, 'Rather than dichotomizing personality research into the study of dispositions or processes, this theory allows one to pursue concurrently both personality dispositions and processes—structures and dynamics—as aspects of the same unitary system.' (p. 263). Clearly, the field has made significant progress over the past two decades and the earlier situationist controversy sparked by Mischel in the late appears to have essentially been resolved, with the general recognition that the person-situation interaction is indeed important."[12] Likewise, John B. Campbell concluded that, "The debate gradually faded during the 1980s, as the parties (re-) embraced an interactionist approach...".[13]

Situation and behaviour[edit]

(see main article Person–situation debate)

Mischel made the case that the field of personality psychology was searching for consistency in the wrong places. Instead of treating situations as the noise or "error of measurement", Mischel's work proposed that by including the situation as it is perceived by the individual and by analyzing behavior in its situational context, the consistencies that characterize the individual would be found. He argued that these individual differences would not be expressed in consistent cross-situational behavior, but instead, he suggested that consistency would be found in distinctive but stable patterns of if-then, situation-behavior relations that form contextualized, psychologically meaningful "personality signatures" (e.g., "s/he does A when X, but does B when Y").

These signatures of personality have been in fact revealed in a large observational study of social behavior across multiple repeated situations over time.[14] Contradicting the classic assumptions, the data showed that individuals who were similar in average levels of behavior, for example in their aggression, nevertheless differed predictably and dramatically in the types of situations in which they exhibited aggression. As predicted by Mischel, they were characterized by highly psychologically informative if-then behavioral signatures. Collectively, this work has allowed a new way to conceptualize and assess both the stability and variability of behavior that is produced by the underlying personality system, and has opened a window into the dynamic processes within the system itself.[15][16]


In a second direction, beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Mischel pioneered work illuminating the ability to delay gratification and to exert self-control in the face of strong situational pressures and emotionally "hot" temptations. His studies with preschoolers in the late 1960s, often referred to as "the marshmallow experiment", examined the processes and mental mechanisms that enable a young child to forego immediate gratification and to wait instead for a larger desired but delayed reward. Continuing research with these original participants has examined how preschool delay of gratification ability links to development over the life course, and may predict a variety of important outcomes (e.g., SAT scores, social and cognitive competence, educational attainment, and drug use), and can have significant protective effects against a variety of potential vulnerabilities.[5] This work also opened a route to research on temporal discounting in decision-making, and most importantly into the mental mechanisms that enable cognitive and emotional self-control, thereby helping to demystify the concept of willpower.[17][18] Comedy Central Television's Stephen Cobert interviewed Dr. Mischel on the Cobert Report on September 25, 2014. In this interview, Mischel's work with preschoolers and gratification was highlighted humorously with Cobert acting the part of an impulsive child.

Selected bibliography[edit]

Scientific publications[edit]

  • Mischel, W. (1968). Personality and assessment. New York: Wiley.
  • Mischel, W. (1973). Toward a cognitive social learning reconceptualization of personality. Psychological Review, 80, 252-283.
  • Mischel, W., Shoda, Y., & Rodriguez, M. L. (1989). Delay of gratification in children. Science, 244, 933-938.
  • Mischel, W. & Shoda, Y. (1995). A cognitive-affective system theory of personality: Reconceptualizing situations, dispositions, dynamics, and invariance in personality structure. Psychological Review, 102, 246-268.
  • Metcalfe, J., & Mischel, W. (1999). A hot/cool system analysis of delay of gratification: Dynamics of willpower. Psychological Review, 106, 3-19.
  • Mischel, W., & Ayduk, O. (2004). "Willpower in a cognitive-affective processing system: The dynamics of delay of gratification". In R. F. Baumeister & K. D. Vohs (Eds.), Handbook of self-regulation: Research, Theory, and Applications (pp. 99–129). New York: Guilford.
  • Mischel, W. (2004). "Toward an integrative science of the person". Annual Review of Psychology, 55, 1-22.


  • Mischel, W. (2007). "Walter Mischel". In G. Lindzey & W. M. Runyan (Eds.), A History of Psychology in Autobiography (Vol. IX, pp. 229–267). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Popular press[edit]


  1. ^ Haggbloom, Steven J.; Warnick, Jason E.; Jones, Vinessa K.; Yarbrough, Gary L.; Russell, Tenea M.; Borecky, Chris M.; McGahhey, Reagan; et al. (2002). "The 100 most eminent psychologists of the 20th century". Review of General Psychology 6 (2): 139–152. doi:10.1037/1089-2680.6.2.139. 
  2. ^ Carducci, Bernardo J. (2009). The Psychology of Personality: Viewpoints, Research, and Applications. Wiley-Blackwell. p. 440. 
  3. ^ Lindzey, Gardner (Ed); Runyan (Ed), William M. (2007). A History of Psychology in Autobiography, Vol. IX. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. pp. 229–267. doi:10.1037/11571-007. 
  4. ^ "learning-self-control". 
  5. ^ a b Lehrer, Jonah (May 18, 2009). "Don't!: The secret of self-control". The New Yorker. 
  6. ^ "Scientist who helps explain self-control wins Grawemeyer Award". 
  7. ^ Mischel, Walter. Personality and Assessment, New York: Wiley, 1968.
  8. ^ McAdams, Dan (2009). The Person: An Introduction to the Science of Personality Psychology. Hoboken,NJ: Wiley. p. 143. ISBN 978-0-470-12913-5. 
  9. ^ Epstein, S. (1977). Traits are alive and well. In D. Magnusson & N.S. Endler (Eds.), Personality at the Crossroads (pp. 83-98). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
  10. ^ Eysenck, M. W. & Eysenck, H. J. (1980). Mischel and the concept of personality. British Journal of Psychology, 71(2), 191-204.
  11. ^ Funder, D. C. (2006). Towards a resolution of the personality triad: Persons, situations, and behaviors. Journal of Research in Personality, 40(1), 21-34.
  12. ^ Boyle, G. J., & Saklofske, D. H. (2004). Editors’ introduction: Contemporary perspectives on the psychology of individual differences. In Sage Benchmarks in Psychology: The Psychology of Individual Differences, Vol. 1: Intelligence. London: Sage. ISBN 0-7619-4409-5
  13. ^ Campbell, J. B. (2008). Modern personality theories: What have we gained? What have we lost? In G. J. Boyle, G. Matthews, & D. H. Saklofske (Eds.), The SAGE Handbook of Personality Theory and Assessment: Vol. 1 - Personality Theories and Models. (p. 202). Los Angeles, CA: Sage. ISBN 9-781412-946513
  14. ^ Mischel, W. & Shoda, Y. (1995). A cognitive-affective system theory of personality: Reconceptualizing situations, dispositions, dynamics, and invariance in personality structure. Psychological Review, 102(2), 246-268.
  15. ^ Mischel, W. (2004). Toward an integrative science of the person. Annual Review of Psychology, 55, 1-22.
  16. ^ Mischel, W., Shoda, Y., & Smith, R. E. (2004). Introduction to Personality: Toward an Integration (7th edn.). New York: Wiley.
  17. ^ Mischel, W., Shoda, Y., & Rodriguez, M. L. (1989). Delay of gratification in children. Science, 244, 933-938.
  18. ^ Mischel, W., & Ayduk, O. (2004). Willpower in a cognitive-affective processing system: The dynamics of delay of gratification. In R.F. Baumeister & K.D. Vohs (Eds.), Handbook of Self-Regulation: Research, Theory, and Applications(pp. 99–129). New York: Guilford.

External links[edit]