|Residence||New York, New York, United States|
|Fields||Psychology, Personality psychology, Social Psychology|
Walter Mischel (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.
Mischel was born in 1930 in Vienna, Austria, from where he fled with his family to the United States after the Nazi occupation in 1938. He grew up in Brooklyn, New York and studied under George Kelly and Julian Rotter at Ohio State University, where he received his Ph.D. in clinical psychology in 1956.
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.
In 1968, Mischel published the now classic monograph, Personality and Assessment, which created a paradigm crisis in personality psychology that changed the agenda of the field for decades. Mischel showed that study after study failed to support the fundamental traditional assumption of personality theory, that an individual’s behavior with regard to a trait (e.g. conscientiousness, sociability) is highly consistent across diverse situations. Instead, Mischel's analyses revealed that the individual’s behavior, when closely examined, was highly dependent upon situational cues, rather than expressed consistently across diverse situations that differed in meaning.
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” in personality psychology, Mischel's work proposed that by including the situation as it is perceived by the person 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., “she does A when X, but B when Y”).
These signatures of personality were in fact revealed in a large observational study of social behavior across multiple repeated situations over time (Mischel & Shoda, 1995). 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 aggressed. 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 (Mischel, 2004).
In a second direction, beginning in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, 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. 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” (Mischel et al., 1989; Mischel & Ayduk, 2004).