Jewish psychologist who created ‘marshmallow test’ of delayed gratification dies

Walter Mischel, who was 88, had said his experiences as a refugee from Nazi Germany led him to take an interest in individuals’ ability to take control of their lives

Psychologist Walter Mischel in 2015 (YouTube screenshot)
Psychologist Walter Mischel in 2015 (YouTube screenshot)

Jewish psychologist Walter Mischel, creator of the famous “marshmallow test” for delayed gratification in children, died last week at the age of 88.

Mischel was born in 1930 in Vienna to Jewish parents. His family fled to the US in 1938 following the Nazi annexation of the country.

In a 2014 interview with the Guardian, he recalled some of the humiliations he experienced under the anti-Semitic regime. “I had new shoes, and some Hitler Youth surrounded me and began to step all over them,” he said. In another incident, “my father, who could only walk with a cane, was made to go through humiliating experiences, like marching around without it, having tomatoes thrown, with people jeering. It was not a happy time.”

In the US the family was forced to deal with a reduced quality of life as refugees, but Mischel steadily advanced, becoming a US citizen in the 1950s and studying psychology at New York University, City College of New York and eventually Ohio State University.

He said his experiences in life aroused an interest in people’s ability to take their life into their own hands. “What are the enabling conditions that allow people to go from being victims to being victors?” he recalled to the Guardian.

Eventually while working at Stanford in the 1960s Mischel devised a simple test of children’s self-control that would make him world-famous. The test consisted of bringing a preschooler into a room where he or she was presented with a treat — a cookie, a marshmallow, etc. — and given two options: eat the candy right away or wait alone in the room for several minutes without eating it and be rewarded with two treats instead of one.

Only about 30 percent of the children were able to delay gratification and win the bigger prize.

Watch a modern version below:

But the more interesting result came only years later, as Mischel followed up with his subjects later in life. He found there was a general correlation between the children’s ability to control their urges during their formative years and their later success in all areas of life, including school, work, social and love life.

In later years Mischel expanded that work to look at ways in which self-control could be taught, and often stressed that his test had never been a be-all and end-all predictor of success.

He went on to teach for several decades at Columbia University and to conduct research in various areas of cognition and behavior.

In 2010 Mischel received an honorary doctorate from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

The university noted his “outstanding scientific contributions in the fields of cognitive, social and personality psychology,” his “pioneering work on the roles of traits and situations in the determination of human behavior” and his “ground-breaking research on self control—from childhood to adulthood [which] has changed the ways in which psychological scientists understand the origins and mechanisms of self control.”

Mischel died at his Manhattan home on September 12 of pancreatic cancer.

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