Student Well-Being

Walter Mischel, ‘Marshmallow Test’ Researcher, Dies

By Sarah D. Sparks — September 17, 2018 1 min read
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Walter Mischel, a Columbia University psychologist and the author of a landmark studies on child development and self-control, died Sept. 12. He was 88.

Mischel, Columbia’s Robert Johnston Niven professor emeritus of humane letters, was perhaps best known for a series of studies that came to be known as the “Marshmallow Test,” which has helped shape social psychology research and the modern school approach to children’s social-emotional development.

More than 45 years ago, Mischel led a team of Stanford University researchers who asked 4-year-olds to hold off eating one treat right away in exchange for the promise of two treats 15 minutes later. Fewer than 1 in 3 children were able to hold off the full time—but in the decades that followed, Mischel and other researchers found the students who had waited for the additional treat were more likely to achieve academically and maintain healthy habits than peers who couldn’t hold out.

While debates over the marshmallow test research in education have often revolved around the value of teaching students to delay gratification, Mischel was more interested in the strategies students used to do so, and the ways their skills at self-control changed in different contexts, such as high-stress environments.

“Even young students can understand that they can change how they think, and how they plan, in ways that will allow them to have greater control over what they can do, learn, and what they can become,” Mischel told Education Week in 2014, after the publication of his book on the research.

A native of Vienna, Austria, Mischel grew up in the Brooklyn borough of New York and received a bachelor’s degree in psychology from New York University, a master’s degree in clinical psychology from the City College of New York, and a doctoral degree in clinical psychology from the Ohio State University. Mischel previously worked at the University of Colorado, Harvard University, and Stanford University before coming to Columbia University.

“Walter was a living legend in psychology yet a humble mentor and colleague. We will miss him dearly,” said Carl Hart, the chairman of Columbia’s psychology department, in a statement.

Mischel is survived by his partner, Michele Tolela Myers; daughters, Judy, Rebecca, and Linda; and his grandchildren.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.