Walter Mischel

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Walter Mischel (b. 1930 in Vienna, Austria) is a personality psychologist. He has been a professor at Columbia University since 1983; he had previously been a professor at Stanford University.

Mischel's famous longitudinal research study, "The Marshmallow Test," showed the importance of impulse control and delayed gratification for academic, emotional and social success. In the 1960s at the preschool on the Stanford University campus, Mischel put marshmallows in front of a room full of 4-year-olds. He told them they could have one marshmallow now, but if they could wait several minutes, they could have two. Some children eagerly grabbed a marshmallow and ate it. Others waited, some having to cover their eyes in order not to see the tempting treat and one child even licked the table around the marshmallow. Mischel followed the group and found that, 14 years later, the "grabbers" suffered low self-esteem and were viewed by others as stubborn, prone to envy and easily frustrated. The "waiters" were better copers, more socially competent and self-assertive, trustworthy, dependable and more academically successful. This group even scored about 210 points higher on their SATs.

Among psychologists, he is perhaps best-known for his works which declare that personality is too variant across situations to be viewed as consisting of cross-situationally consistent traits and probably is influenced more by situational factors than has traditionally been appreciated. This view has popularly been nicknamed "situationism" (see Situationism in psychology), although Mischel's first major book, Personality and Assessment (1968) never actually used the word "situationism", and in his later writings, Mischel appears to treat this term as a pejorative term. He has recently clarified that he does believe that traits remain stable over time; it is cross-situational, rather than cross-temporal, consistency which he has challenged. His views on personality led to considerable debates with Hans Eysenck.

In 1968, Mischel published a paper which argued that a person's behaviour varies so much across situations that it makes no sense to think of personality and personality stability in terms of broad trait theories, such as the Five Factor Model. He said that an observer could not validly predict what an individual was going to think, feel or act based on a previous trait measure. For example, a person might be quiet and reserved in a work situation, but be conversational and friendly in a gathering of friends.


Original paper: Mischel, W., Shoda, Y., & Rodriguez, M. L. (1989). Delay of Gratification in Children. Science, 244, 933-938. (Note: Online access is probably limited to subscribers or people at universities with paid subscriptions.)

  • Bermúdez Moreno, José; Pérez García, Ana María; Sanjuán Suárez, Pilar Psicología de la personalidad: Teoría e investigación, 2003. Madrid: UNED. ISBN 84-362-4875-9.

Author's website:


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