Re­searcher be­hind marsh­mal­low test

The Washington Post Sunday - - OBITUARIES - BY EMILY LANGER emily.langer@wash­

The ex­per­i­ment was “sim­plic­ity it­self,” its cre­ator, psy­chol­o­gist Wal­ter Mis­chel, would later re­call. The prin­ci­pal in­gre­di­ent was a cookie or a pret­zel stick or — most in­trigu­ingly to the pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion — a marsh­mal­low.

In what be­came known as “the marsh­mal­low test,” a child was placed in a room with a treat and pre­sented with a choice. She could eat the treat right away. Or she could wait un­ac­com­pa­nied in the room, for up to 20 min­utes, and then re­ceive two treats in re­ward for her for­bear­ance.

Con­duct­ing their work at a nurs­ery school on the cam­pus of Stan­ford Univer­sity in the 1960s, Dr. Mis­chel and his col­leagues ob­served re­sponses that were as en­light­en­ing as they are en­dur­ingly adorable. Some chil­dren dis­tracted them­selves by putting their fin­gers in their ears or nose. At least one child ca­ressed the marsh­mal­low as he hun­gered for it. Only about 30 per­cent of the chil­dren man­aged to wait for the dou­ble re­ward.

Dr. Mis­chel, who con­tin­ued his ca­reer at Columbia Univer­sity and died Sept. 12 at 88, fol­lowed a co­hort of the chil­dren for decades and pre­sented his find­ings to main­stream read­ers in his 2014 book “The Marsh­mal­low Test: Why Self-Con­trol is the En­gine of Suc­cess.”

His ob­ser­va­tions, widely noted and hotly de­bated, were strik­ing: Chil­dren who had found ways to de­lay grat­i­fi­ca­tion, he found, had greater suc­cess in school, made more money and were less prone to obe­sity and drug ad­dic­tion.

“What emerged from those stud­ies is a dif­fer­ent view of self­con­trol, one that sees it as a mat­ter of skill” and not a mat­ter of “grit­ting your teeth,” said Yuichi Shoda, a pro­fes­sor of psy­chol­ogy at the Univer­sity of Wash­ing­ton who worked with Dr. Mis­chel as a grad­u­ate stu­dent.

As wor­ried par­ents con­ducted marsh­mal­low tests at home, pol­i­cy­mak­ers, ed­u­ca­tors and mo­ti­va­tional speak­ers found a com­pelling catch­phrase: “Don’t eat the marsh­mal­low!” Even the ravenous Cookie Mon­ster, a main­stay of the chil­dren’s TV show “Se­same Street,” was coaxed to re­sist a cookie.

Mean­while, some psy­chol­o­gists chal­lenged Dr. Mis­chel’s find­ings, ar­gu­ing that a study group drawn from the priv­i­leged en­vi­rons of Stan­ford could hardly yield re­li­able re­sults. Skep­tics noted that while af­flu­ent fam­i­lies might teach their chil­dren to de­lay grat­i­fi­ca­tion, in an ef­fort to en­cour­age fi­nan­cial and other forms of re­spon­si­bil­ity, chil­dren from dis­ad­van­taged homes learn that wait­ing to eat might mean not eat­ing at all.

Dr. Mis­chel de­fended his re­search, em­pha­siz­ing that in no way did he wish to sug­gest a lab­o­ra­tory per­for­mance — par­tic­u­larly by a preschooler — was des­tiny. The ques­tion, he said, is “how can you reg­u­late your­self and con­trol your­self in ways that make your life bet­ter?”

Wal­ter Mis­chel was born Feb. 22, 1930, to a Jewish fam­ily in Vi­enna. His home was not far from that of Sig­mund Freud, the founder of psy­cho­anal­y­sis. “Even as a young child I was aware of his pres­ence,” Dr. Mis­chel once told the Bri­tish Psy­cho­log­i­cal So­ci­ety, “and I sus­pect at some level I be­came quite in­ter­ested in what makes peo­ple tick.”

Dr. Mis­chel’s fam­ily en­joyed a com­fort­able life un­til the rise of Nazism. His fa­ther, a busi­ness­man who had suf­fered from po­lio, was made to limp through the streets with­out his cane. Dr. Mis­chel re­called be­ing hu­mil­i­ated by mem­bers of the Hitler Youth who tread on his new shoes. The ex­pe­ri­ence, he told the Guardian, planted in him a de­sire to un­der­stand “the en­abling con­di­tions that al­low peo­ple to go from be­ing vic­tims to be­ing vic­tors.”

Af­ter the Nazi an­nex­a­tion of Aus­tria in 1938, the fam­ily fled the coun­try and set­tled even­tu­ally in New York City, where they ran a five-and-dime store. Dr. Mis­chel, who be­came a U.S. cit­i­zen in the 1950s, helped sup­port the fam­ily by work­ing in an um­brella fac­tory and as an el­e­va­tor op­er­a­tor.

He was a 1951 psy­chol­ogy grad­u­ate of New York Univer­sity and re­ceived a mas­ter’s de­gree from the City Col­lege of New York in 1953 and a PhD from Ohio State Univer­sity in 1956, both in clin­i­cal psy­chol­ogy. He taught at Har­vard Univer­sity be­fore set­tling at Stan­ford.

He said he be­came fas­ci­nated by the de­vel­op­ment of self-con­trol in chil­dren by watch­ing his daugh­ters emerge from in­fancy into tod­dler-hood and girl­hood.

“I be­gan with a truly burn­ing ques­tion,” he told the Guardian. “I wanted to know how my three young daugh­ters de­vel­oped, in a re­mark­ably short pe­riod of time, from be­ing howl­ing, scream­ing, of­ten im­pos­si­ble kids to peo­ple who were ac­tu­ally able to sit and do some­thing that re­quired them to con­cen­trate. I wanted to un­der­stand this mirac­u­lous trans­for­ma­tion.”

The sub­jects of the Stan­ford nurs­ery-school tests were his daugh­ters’ class­mates. As the chil­dren grew up and he no­ticed cor­re­la­tions be­tween their child­hood self-con­trol and fu­ture suc­cess, he de­cided to pur­sue the ques­tion more rig­or­ously, through lon­gi­tu­di­nal study.

He con­ceded the lim­i­ta­tions of his study group at Stan­ford. “It was an un­be­liev­ably elit­ist sub­set of the hu­man race, which was one of the con­cerns that mo­ti­vated me to study chil­dren in the South Bronx — kids in high-stress, poverty con­di­tions,” he told the At­lantic in 2014, “and yet we saw many of the same phe­nom­ena as the marsh­mal­low stud­ies were re­veal­ing.”

Dr. Mis­chel pro­posed strate­gies for de­lay­ing grat­i­fi­ca­tion, such as putting the ob­ject at phys­i­cal dis­tance, by re­mov­ing it from view, or at sym­bolic dis­tance by imag­in­ing it to be some­thing else. A marsh­mal­low is not a sug­ary treat, for ex­am­ple, but rather a cot­ton ball.

In his own life, he re­ported suc­cess at re­sist­ing choco­late mousse by imag­in­ing the dessert to be cov­ered in roaches. A self-de­scribed “three-packs-a-day smoker, sup­ple­mented by a pipe . . . sup­ple­mented by a cigar,” he said he con­quered his ad­dic­tion by re­call­ing the image of a lung-can­cer pa­tient he had seen at Stan­ford, branded with X’s where he would be treated by ra­di­a­tion.

In ad­di­tion to “The Marsh­mal­low Test,” Dr. Mis­chel wrote and co-au­thored nu­mer­ous texts on per­son­al­ity, child de­vel­op­ment and other fields of psy­cho­log­i­cal re­search. He re­tired last year af­ter more than three decades at Columbia.

His mar­riages to Frances Henry and Har­riet Nerlove ended in di­vorce. Sur­vivors in­clude his part­ner of nearly two decades, Michele Myers of New York; three daugh­ters from his sec­ond mar­riage, Judy Mis­chel of Chicago, Rebecca Mis­chel of Port­land, Ore., and Linda Mis­chel Eis­ner of New York City; and six grand­chil­dren.

Linda Mis­chel Eis­ner con­firmed the death and said her fa­ther died at his home of pan­cre­atic can­cer.

Dr. Mis­chel pro­fessed to have found hope in his life’s work. “If we have the skills to al­low us to make dis­crim­i­na­tions about when we do or don’t do some­thing,” he told the New Yorker mag­a­zine, “we are no longer vic­tims of our de­sires.”

“It’s not,” he said, “just about marsh­mal­lows.”

“If we have the skills to al­low us to make dis­crim­i­na­tions about when we do or don’t do some­thing, we are no longer vic­tims of our de­sires.” Wal­ter Mis­chel, psy­chol­o­gist who re­searched de­layed grat­i­fi­ca­tion


Wal­ter Mis­chel, seen here in 2014, con­ducted what would be­come known as “the marsh­mal­low test,” which posited that chil­dren who found ways to de­lay grat­i­fi­ca­tion had greater suc­cess in life.

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