Walter Mischel: Marshmallow Man

By Shlomo Maital

Walter Mischel…

..and the marshmallow


On Sept. 12, psychologist Walter Mischel passed away, in New York City. He was 88.

Mischel became famous for what was known as the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment. He designed a series of studies, on “ability (or willingness) to defer gratification”.   In them, a child was offered a choice between one small reward provided immediately (a marshmallow) or two small rewards (two marshmallows) if they waited for a short period, approximately 15 minutes, during which the tester left the room and then returned.  

   Mischel and colleagues, in follow-up studies, found that children who were able to wait longer for the delayed rewards tended to have better life outcomes – better SAT scores, educational attainment, body mass index (BMI) and other life measures. The logic here is simple. Achieving good results later in life demands investing effort, sacrifice and pleasure now, today. Those good at this will excel.  It is a skill imparted, in part, by parents, and improves with practice.

     Mischel fled with his family from Austria, with the rise of the Nazis, at age 6. He taught at Stanford for years, and later at Columbia.   He joined the legions of scholars who came to America as immigrants and made huge contributions to America’s scientific research and academic excellence.

       Mischel’s research is hugely relevant for today’s society. Western nations have as a whole become unable and unwilling to defer gratification. Gas lines explode in Massachusetts; bridges collapse in Genoa, Italy. Western countries seem unable to save and invest in the future, preferring present gratification.   A majority of Americans could not scrape together $400 in cash, in an emergency. The Great Divide between have-nots and millionaire/billionaires is spurring a rise of anti-democratic extreme right-wing political parties and leaders. It is ironic that the forces that led Mischel to America, have in part followed him there.