Scientist who helps explain self-control wins Grawemeyer Award

Good things come to those who wait. A scientist who showed that willpower can be learned–and that it carries lifelong benefits–has won the 2011 University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award for Psychology.

Walter Mischel, psychology professor and Niven professor of humane letters at Columbia University, will receive the $100,000 annual award.

Taking the mystery out of the eternal challenge of resisting temptation, Mischel created a scientific method to study human self-control, demonstrated its importance and explained the psychological processes that enable people to delay gratification.

A test he designed to study willpower known as “the marshmallow test” showed that preschool children can learn to resist an immediate treat like a single marshmallow for the promise of a larger one later, and can do so more effectively by changing the way they envision the treats.

Mischel’s work over decades shows that willpower creates a protective buffer. The higher measures of delay time for those preschoolers later translated into higher SAT scores and better coping methods in adolescence. Later still, they had higher educational achievement and resistance to drug abuse and, in adulthood, lower rates of divorce and marital separation, fewer law violations and even lower body-mass index numbers.

Mischel’s findings have been applied in many fields. Education researchers teach children skills in delayed gratification, while health scientists use his model to study behavior relapses and economists factor it into decision-making.

By demystifying the concept of willpower and subjecting it to serious scientific study, Mischel has paved the way towards an understanding not just of the psychology of self-control but of its underlying brain mechanisms as well,” said award director Woody Petry.

Five Grawemeyer Awards are presented each year for outstanding works in music composition, ideas improving world order, psychology, education and religion. Winners of the other 2011 Grawemeyer Awards also are being announced this week.

About Walter Mischel

Walter Mischel (mih-SHEHL’) has devoted much of his research to the study of delayed gratification, an interest that emerged from his general research on personality.

A psychology professor and Niven professor of humane letters at Columbia University, he began teaching there in 1983. Previously, he taught at Stanford University, Harvard University and University of Colorado.

Born in Vienna, Mischel and his family immigrated to the United States in 1938. He earned his doctorate in clinical psychology from The Ohio State University, which also gave him an honorary doctorate in 1996 and a distinguished alumnus award this year.

He received his master’s degree in clinical psychology from The City College of New York and his bachelor’s degree in psychology from New York University. He received an honorary doctorate from Hebrew University of Jerusalem this year.

Mischel was elected to the National Academy of Sciences and American Academy of Arts and Science, has won awards from the Foundation for the Advancement of Behavioral and Brain Sciences, National Institute of Mental Health, American Psychological Association, Society of Experimental Social Psychologists and Society for Personality and Social Psychology.

He has served as president of the Association for Psychological Science, Association for Research in Personality and of several American Psychological Association divisions. Mischel is also a fellow of the Society of Experimental Psychologists, American Psychological Society, Society of Experimental Social Psychologists and Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences.

The U.S. Veterans Administration Hospitals and Peace Corps have relied on him as a consultant.

A former editor for Psychological Review, Mischel has served on the editorial boards of many academic journals, including Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, Journal of Cognitive Therapy and Research, Journal of Personality Research and Child Development.

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