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His Name May Not Be Familiar, but His Famous Test Endures

Walter Mischel created the marshmallow test to gauge kids' self-gratification; he's dead at 88
By Newser Editors,  Newser Staff
Posted Sep 21, 2018 11:55 AM CDT
   (Getty/AnthonyRosenberg)

(Newser) – A psychologist by the name of Walter Mischel died this month at age 88, and if the name doesn't ring a bell, a test he concocted in the 1960s just might. It's the "marshmallow test," and the premise is simple: Mischel presented young children with a marshmallow (or other treat) and offered a deal. If they could sit alone in a room with the marshmallow for a while without eating it, they'd get two when he returned, explains Quartz. As it turns out, only about 1 in 3 of the kids managed to refrain from eating it, notes the Washington Post. The test gained renown when Mischel followed up with the kids and found a striking correlation: Those who learned to master the art of self-gratification tended to be more successful later in life. But as Mischel himself would stress, the results often were misinterpreted in the mainstream.

One key part of his test that often goes unmentioned, he once explained, is that some of the kids were taught strategies on how to keep from eating the marshmallow, while others were left to their own devices, reports NPR. The main lesson, then, was that people can teach themselves better habits rather than relying on sheer willpower. "People can use their wonderful brains to think differently about situations, to reframe them, to reconstrue them, to even reconstrue themselves," Mischel said. (See this video for the interview.) Another facet of Mischel's life: He grew up as a Jewish child in Austria before World War II, and he gave a 2014 interview to the Guardian in which he talks about the hardships he endured. Mischel's family fled to the US in 1938. (Read more obituary stories.)

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