Like so many who study psychology, we at LatB are terribly sad to learn that Walter Mischel has died.
The New York Times obituary describes his importance — both in revolutionizing the field of psychology, and in popular understanding of self-control.
Personality in Context
For psychologists, Mischel emphasized the importance of context.
Personality theory suggests that “I’m this kind of person, not that kind of person.” Mischel’s research emphasizes that “I’m this kind of person in these circumstances, and that kind of person in other circumstances.” Context always matters.
This insight can’t be over-emphasized among teachers who want to teach with research in mind.
We shouldn’t just hear about a particular psychology study and adopt its methodology. We should, instead, check to see if the method that worked in that context might also work in this context. Which is to say: our classroom.
After all: most psychology research happens with college students. If you don’t teach college students, you need to adapt that research to your context.
Marshmallows in Context
In popular culture, Mischel is best known for the “marshmallow test” (which, by the way, included other treats beyond marshmallows”).
You’ve seen videos of adorable 5-year-olds desperately trying to resist yummy goodness. For example:
The often-oversimplified test includes many nuances. For instance, the 5-year-olds respond differently based on how much they trust you.
But the headline remains important: self-control matters.
Those of us who got to see Walter Mischel speak at the November 2015 conference will not soon forget his clarity, thoughtfulness, and warmth.