Biography of Walter Mischel

Walter Mischel, the second son of upper-middle-class parents, was bom on February 22, 1930, hi Vienna. He and his brother Theodore, who later became a philosopher of science, grew up in a pleasant environment only a short distance from Freud's home. The tranquillity of childhood, however, was shattered when the Nazis invaded Austria hi 1938. That same year, the Mischel family fled Austria and moved to the United States. After living in various parts of the country, they eventually settled hi Brooklyn, where Walter attended primary and secondary schools. Before he could accept a college scholarship, his father suddenly became ill, and Walter was forced to take a series of odd jobs. Eventually, he was able to attend New York University, where he became passionately interested hi art (painting and sculpture) and divided his time among art, psychology, and life hi Greenwich Village.

In college, Mischel was appalled by the rat-centered hitroductory psychology classes that seemed to lùm far removed from the everyday lives of humans. His humanistic inclinations were solidified by reading Freud the existential thinkers, and the great poets. After graduation, he entered the MA program hi clinical psychology at City College of New York. While workhig on his degree, he was employed as a social worker in the Lower East Side slums, work that led him to doubt the usefulness of psychoanalytic theory and to see the necessity of ushig empirical evidence to evaluate all claims of psychology.

Mischel's development as a cognitive social psychologist was further enhanced by his doctoral studies at Ohio State University from 1953 to 1956. At that time, the psychology department at Ohio State was informally divided hito the supporters of its two most influential faculty members—Julian Rotter and George Kelly. Unlike most students, who strongly supported one or the other position, Mischel admired both Rotter and Kelly and learned from each of them. As a consequence, Mischels cognitive social theory shows the influence of Rotter s social learning theory as well as Kelly's cognitively based theory of personal constructs (see Chapter 18). Rotter taught Mischel the importance of research design for improving assessment techniques and for measuring the effectiveness of therapeutic treatment; Kelly taught him that participants hi psychology experiments are like the psychologists who study them in that they are thinking, feeling human beings.

From 1956 to 1958, Mischel lived much of the time hi the Caribbean, studying religious cults that practiced spirit possession and investigating delay of gratification hi a cross-cultural setting. He became determined to learn more about why people prefer future valuable rewards over immediate less valuable ones. Much of his later research has revolved around this issue.

Next, Mischel taught for 2 years at the University of Colorado. He then joined the Department of Social Relations at Harvard where his hiterest in personality theory and assessment was further stimulated by discussions with Gordon Allport (see Chapter 13), Henry Murray, David McClelland and others. In 1962, Mischel moved to Stanford and became a colleague of Albert Bandura (see Chapter 16). After more than 20 years at Stanford Mischel returned to New York, joining the faculty at Columbia University, where he remains as an active researcher and continues to hone his cognitive social learning theory.

While at Harvard Mischel met and married Harriet Nerlove, another graduate student in cognitive psychology. Before their divorce, the Mischels collaborated to produce tlnee daughters and several scientific projects (H. N. Mischel & W. Mischel, 1973; W. Mischel & H. N. Mischel, 1976, 1983). Mischels most important early work was Personality and Assessment (1968), an outgrowth of his efforts to identify successful Peace Corps volunteers. His experiences as consultant to the Peace Corps taught him that under the right conditions, people are at least as capable as standardized tests at predicting then own behavior. In Personality and Assessment, Mischel argued that traits are weak predictors of performance hi a variety of situations and that the situation is more important than traits in influencing behavior. This book upset many clinical psychologists, who argued that the inability of personal dispositions to predict behavior across situations was due to the unreliability and impreci sion of the instruments that measure traits. Some believed that Mischel was trying to undo the concept of stable personality traits and even deny the existence of personality. Later, Mischel (1979) answered his critics, saying that he was not opposed to traits as such, but only to generalized traits that negate the individuality and uniqueness of each person.

Much of M ischers research has been a cooperative effort with a number of his graduate students. In recent years, many of his publications have been collaborations with Yuichi Shoda, who received his PhD from Columbia hi 1990 and is presently at the University of Washington. Mischels most popular book, Introduction to Personality, was published originally hi 1971 and underwent a 7th revision hi 2004, with Yuichi Shoda and Ronald D. Smith as coauthors. Mischel lias won several awards, including the Distinguished Scientist award from the clinical division of the American Psychological Association (APA) in 1978 and the A PA s award for Distinguished Scientific Contribution in 1982.

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