Inside the Psychologist’s Studio with Walter Mischel

Inside the Psychologist’s Studio with Walter Mischel


Banaji: It’s a great pleasure, in fact,
an honor for me to be on the stages with Walter Mischel. I first discovered Walter’s work
when I was a student, before I even got to graduate school. I lived in India and I bought
a book called Personality and Assessment. Now, this is a textbook and you don’t usually
find 21-year-olds reading a textbook right through the night when it’s not required
for their class, but I did. It’s because of what that book was. It had ideas in it
that were so radical for the time that it just made my head spin.
Many years later, I came to understand actually the true importance of that book, but even
in that moment it was clear to me that this book was trying to tell us something different
about what personality was. That I had to shed the idea that personality was a set of
traits. That to think about personality, I had to think about everything. About consciousness,
a sense of self and where that came from. From all the things that were inside, but
also the outside, the family, how a child developed in a culture, how world events would
shape us as humans, and that it was nearly impossible to ignore that these two were going
to be completely intertwined. This is a very hard idea. Walter, your book, your 68 book
did that for me. So, for many of those reasons, I’m just
absolutely thrilled to be the person to ask Walter to say a few things about his own life
and his work and how he came to do it. But before we do that, I’m going to give you
a few biographical facts about Walter Mischel. Walter Mischel is Niven Professor of Humane
Letters in Psychology at Columbia University. He’s been there since 1983. He studied in
New York City at City College and at NYU before he went on to graduate school at Ohio State
University, which is also my alma mater. He taught at the University of Colorado and Harvard
for a few years, but he spent many years – 21 years I’m told – at Stanford University
before he got to Columbia. Walter Mischel ranks among the great psychologists
of the 20th and 21st centuries. I’ll just give you a few of the awards he’s won as
an indication of how we regard him in our field. He was the first to win the Legacy
award of SPSP, the Golden Goose Award, which we will come back to because it’s a very
interesting award and we should know what it’s for. The Grawemeyer Award and the Wittgenstein
Prize from the Austrian Research Foundation whose significance, of course, will become
clear in just a few minutes as we talk about the city of Walter’s birth, which is Vienna.
Because of his deep and wide impact on psychology, Walter has been elected to the National Academy
of Sciences, to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He’s a recipient of the Distinguished
Scientific Contribution Award from the APS. He’s a William James fellow of the APS,
which is an organization of which he also served as president. Walter Mischel is an
intellectual giant, a great hero of mine and of many others of my generation, of the generation
of my students and their students and so on. So thank you, Walter, for what you’ve done,
for what you represent, and thank you for being here. So let’s get started.
We are in Vienna and this is where you were born in 1930. You were eight years old when
the Nazis came to power. And you write that within a single week, you went from sitting
in the first bench of your class to having to stand in the back. I dont know how you
can joke about this, but you joke that it is no small wonder that you became interested
in rejection sensitivity as a result of this. It is, of course, to a reader like me a painful
story as I imagine a very intelligent eight-year-old boy trying to make sense of a world gone mad.
So I’d like you to tell us about those early years. The last little bit in Vienna, perhaps
leaving Vienna penniless, wandering, ending up in a poor section of Brooklyn.
Walter Mischel: Well, it wasn’t just moving from the first row in the classroom to standing
in the back. That was already the good news. It was when the door was locked to the school
for me and I couldn’t go into it that the world really changed. And I won’t go into
the details of it, but it was not a good time to be a Jew in Vienna. The details of it are
still complex, painful, and I’m not at all surprised when you pointed it out to me that
there is a connection between my connecting with Geraldine Downey to study rejection sensitivity
decades later. I had never seen that connection even though where I lived in Vienna was not
far from Freud’s house, so I should have anticipated it.
Mahzarin Banaji: That’s right. In fact, when we’re having dinner last night, the
waiter we had told us that his son goes to the Sigmund Freud School.
Walter Mischel: So it was a very sudden transition, from upper middle class to no class whatsoever,
at any level. It was also of my first encounter with the importance of luck, which I think
is an underestimated variable in human experience. When the Anschluss occurred and Hitler was
hailed and greeted as an enormous hero by Austria and certainly in Vienna, the automatic
reaction naively was to start burning all the papers that one had, thinking that, that
somehow would be protective [sounds like]. The naivete and the idiocy of the response
on all sides is something we don’t need to go into. But the good news was that there
was a piece of paper that before throwing it into the fireplace I showed to my parents
because I it had a gold seal on it and a photo. The photo was of my maternal grandfather who
had come to New York in 1900 and become a U.S. citizen and had come back then to Austria
and my parents and family had no realization of that. But that little piece of paper is
why I’m sitting here and we’re talking. So that’s the beginning. And then, a period
of wandering began that took a number of years because my father was incapable of accepting
or believing that this was going to be more than a momentary perturbation and that all
would be well, so we kept hanging around almost too long but got out just before Kristallnacht
when it was still possible to do so. As you say, quite penniless. As I recall, $7 per
child, $14 per adult was what was allowed for the exit even as a derivative American
citizen. Anyway, the wandering began and I saw a transformation
in my parents that was remarkable. That I think, again, since we’re talking a little
bit about the roots of one’s work and of one’s career and of one’s ideas, which
was that as a result of the Hitler experience, my father went from a very happy, successful,
positive man to a severely withdrawn, depressed person who could not accept what had occurred.
Really, who was unable to recognize it and whose dream continued to be to come back to
Austria. My mother however went through an enormous transition from being someone who
seemed to have no purpose in life other than to have the domestic help really make sure
that they cleaned the table properly and so on while she spent most of the time lying
on a couch with ice packs. And I think if we had been somewhat closer to Freud’s house,
she’d probably tell you stories about the analysis. So she, however, transformed in
the United States, found a role for herself, became the waitress and the person who made
it possible to have an existence. So that’s the upshot of the beginning.
Mahzarin Banaji: Yes. There are many ways in which great discoveries in science come
about, but what I love about this story that you tell about, the transformation in your
parents’ personality is that it may have been your first insight into the power of
environments. That the stability of what you had thought was a happy father, and may I
say, a neurotic mother ended up producing the switch in them in some ways. And all that
had changed was they had, had to flee their country.
Walter Mischel: I mean, I must say I can see that now. But it’s an example of insight
that comes afterwards. It was certainly not part of what I was experiencing at the time
but looking back, it certainly makes sense. But if the question becomes what led to the
1968 book and what led to a questioning of the assumptions that guided psychology, that’s
another question and I think that is worth talking about.
Mahzarin Banaji: We will come to that, yes. So, you are now in America. Of course, it’s
a country that did for you as it has for many Europeans and many people around the world
and continues to and we hope will continue to be a place where immigrants from all over
the world come. But even in America, things were not simple. We have talked in the last
two days about the two percent quota. Can you say a little bit about what it was like
to be applying to colleges knowing that because of your membership in the group, the likelihood
you would be admitted was small and it didn�t have to do with merit or talent which is —
Walter Mischel: Well, I mean, I was happily surprised that Columbia University admitted
two percent Jews. It was a lot better than what the University of Vienna was doing at
the time. Mahzarin Banaji: That’s right. Exactly.
But still, two percent. Today, we’re appalled at the fact that there was a quota on any
group. But, yes, of course. Walter Mischel: Yes. No, I mean, it’s been
a very interesting 87 years. Mahzarin Banaji: And those quotas remained
until not that long ago. Walter Mischel: No, not until that long ago.
Mahzarin Banaji: I mean I hear stories all the time of people who say I happened to get
in, in spite of the quota because I used to play trumpet and the bandleader needed me.
Yes, it’s in fact quite shocking. Walter Mischel: My father, with the help of
the refugee committee, at that point in Brooklyn, this is when I was starting to apply to schools
and so on, had a little store that was 5 cents, 10 cents and up, except there was virtually no
up because it was 5 cents and 10 cents. The problem for me was that just as I was starting at
Columbia, just literally as I was starting on a scholarship that I had won and got me
in within the two percent, he had a heart attack so I couldn’t go. Then the next year
when he had reasonably recovered, because I had to work in the 5 cents and up, I couldn’t
get back in. So then I went to NYU. I didn’t dream a major in psychology. I tried it but
I found it absolutely ghastly. Mahzarin Banaji: Let’s actually talk a little
bit about how psychology was ghastly. So you’re in New York City. This is what, late 50s?
Walter Mischel: I entered college in 47 and then 47 to 51.
Mahzarin Banaji: So what’s the scene in New York is the question. I assume there are
things called schools of psychology and people kind of affiliate with one of these. You’re
a gestaltist or you’re a psychoanalyst or a humanist or a behaviorist. And you did encounter
psychoanalysis. I assume that there were debates and you tried to understand what it was and
how it — Walter Mischel: Well, I mean, encountered
it [indiscernible]. Mazarin Banaji: Yeah, you were immersed in
it. Walter Mischel: I was steeped in it. And the
experience that I had as an undergraduate at NYU was I had a horrible course in abnormal
psychology which was completely just classifying people into categories that didn’t make
any sense to me with no attention whatsoever to either how you can assess them or how you
might be able to help them and so on. So that was a total turnoff. I wasn’t a psychology
major. And then I had an undergraduate course which
was really entirely rats but brainless rats, so it was even before Skinner really had his
impact. So it was just sort of rats. Mahzarin Banaji: Just rats.
Walter Mischel: Yeah. Mahzarin Banaji: Not even thoughtful rats.
Walter Mischel: Yeah. And there was no realization of how much of the genome we shared with them,
so I didn’t have the right mental set for dealing with them. So I got out of that and
became an English literature major and Philosophy. It wasn’t until my senior year where you
have to declare what you want to do that I declared that I wanted to do psychology, clinical
psychology and obviously analytic. So I went to City College from 51 to 53 to get
a masters in clinical psychology at a time that the college of the city of New York had
a fantastic clinical program. It only admitted nine students so it was very small. It had
terrific people in it like Gardner Murphy and Barmack and people that you never heard
of but who at the time were very important and interesting minds. The problem was that
most of the teaching was done by people from the New York Psychoanalytic Institute, which
I found fascinating. So it’s not that I was fighting it, I was buying it.
But the turning point moment for me became when I realized that when questions were being
asked, the response was not to answer the question but to get into the resistance and
dynamics of the question asker. That really bothered me tremendously.
Mahzarin Banaji: Why do you feel that way, Walter?
Walter Mischel: Yeah. You have it exactly right including the finger, the tilt of the
head. Mahzarin Banaji: Exactly. If I had a cigar
I would [cross-talking]. Walter Mischel: And I knew exactly why I have
felt that way. But then, the episode that really turned me around was to make money
and to do good. I was working as an uncredentialed social worker in the Henry Street Settlement
House in Manhattan. And I was working at the same time that I was going to City College
and getting the analytic training, with kids, adolescent kids, who were really from very
hard backgrounds. I mean, one of them had a brother who was upstate waiting for the
electric chair. So these were kids who really were having a very hard time in life. And
one evening, I was imparting the latest wisdom that I had learned in my psychoanalytic training
and I thought this is really wonderful because I was surrounded by a circle of these kids
who were breathlessly listening to what I was saying. And I was really excited until
I smelled smoke and realized that the back of my jacket had been set on fire. It’s
a true story. Mahzarin Banaji: By one of the kids you thought
was listening so intently to you. Walter Mischel: By one of the kids to whom
I was giving the insights. So this was for me a life changing moment.
Mahzarin Banaji: You didn’t need psychoanalysis to understand why that kid did that.
Walter Mischel: So I decided to go to graduate school, that I really needed some training.
Mahzarin Banaji: The normal response when your jacket is set on fire, go to graduate
school. Walter Mischel: So I applied to Stanford,
which rejected me from graduate school. And I applied to Ohio State and a couple other
places. But Ohio State offered $50 more than the others. So my career I think was dramatically
influenced by the $50. Mahzarin Banaji: Absolutely. We have similar
stories. So Ohio State then becomes the beneficiary of Walter Mischel and you of it.
Walter Mischel: And I, it’s beneficiary. It was fantastic [cross-talking]
Mahzarin Banaji: It must have been very different when you got to, I’ll just say, the Midwest
because the way psychology was thought of and practiced even must have been very different
than what you had encountered in New York. You had George Kelly, you had Julian Rotter,
these are two big influences on you. So just give us a sense of what it felt like to be
in the company of those two men, their quite different approaches, and yet you derive from
each of them something very useful. Walter Mischel: No, I took a huge amount from
them and I’ve tried to give credit for it. I think they were enormously powerful influences.
They didn’t connect to each other at all. As a matter of fact, they had offices on the
furthest corners away from each other that they could possibly have had. It was very
exceptional, unusual for a student to go to both offices. Almost invariably, students
allied themselves with one or the other. But I kept shuffling between the two because I
thought that together they had a decent story, but separately they were less than they could
be. I mean, Rotter was I think a giant in making
it clear that clinical psychology had to be rethought. His book, Social Learning and Clinical
Psychology which I think came out in 1954 or very early 50s, I think is still worth
a read today because it really is an attempt to apply what had been becoming learned from
social learning research to thinking about clinical assessment and clinical problems.
George Kelly, I think, on the other end of the hall, really anticipated the cognitive
revolution by a good 15, 20 years. I mean, his work also came out very early in the 50s,
the psychology of personal construct. I thought that, that was fantastic. That for me was
a life-changing experience because it allowed me to also deal with personal issues by realizing
you don’t have to be stuck with them if you can reconstrue them, if you can turn them
around. And that I felt gave to me, as really a kid,
a tremendous way of kind of rotating as he would’ve said rotating the axis, just switching
it so that you’re looking at a way that he referred to as more constructive. Not more
true, nothing to do with truth. It had a great deal to do with convenience. It had a great
deal to do with what works for you. And that was an enormously liberating thing.
So I feel that to Rotter, I owe a tremendous debt in showing the importance of two things:
expectancies and what he called RV or reward values. And the important thing really was
values. He introduced values, which was a symposium tomorrow, into the thinking and
language of psychology. Mahzarin Banaji: That’s radical at that
time. Walter Mischel: Yeah. When he was talking
about reinforcement, he was talking still about palettes [sounds like] and goodies and
so on. But what’s the difference what the unit is as long as you realize it’s the
subjective value for the individual, obviously, different for a four-year-old or for a rat
and for other organisms. But it was a very exciting moment. And I think again, attribute
to luck, I think I was much better off going to Ohio State then than going to Stanford.
Mahzarin Banaji: I completely agree with you because at the Ohio State I felt that they
just took you seriously and put you to work and felt they had a point of view to communicate
and that you are there to learn. I certainly was the beneficiary of that myself. When I
look at some of the titles of your first papers, I’m struck by them. I’ll just read some
of them. “Preference for delayed and immediate reinforcement: An experimental study of a
cultural observation,” and this is something interesting because you left America and you
went away somewhere and you observed a very different kind of culture. I love for you
to say a little bit about that. You studied spirit possession in that culture.
But you wrote a paper called a reinforcement analysis of spirit possession —
Walter Mischel: Which was one of my first publications, I don’t remember if it was
the first or the second, but it wasn’t in a psych journal, it was in the American Anthropologist.
Mahzarin Banaji: That’s exactly right. Yes. And then a bunch of papers on sort of delayed
reinforcement. So was it clear at the time that you are taking some of these somewhat
strictly behaviorist concepts, but into it was being infused a set of things that would
even today makes Skinner turn in his grave if he heard them, right? I mean, issues, you
have a paper on social responsibility and delayed reinforcement. And the word “expectancy,”
I would’ve thought that at that time that was really creating the beginning of the cognitive
revolution. So if you read a history book today, most
graduate students think that was the behaviorist movement and then along came three papers
and they made the cognitive revolution happen. I see it a little differently. I see it as
having been going on for a lot longer in the work of people like you and that eventually
something broke the camel’s back. Walter Mischel: Well, my doctoral dissertation
in 1956 was called The effect of the commitment situation on the generalization of expectancies.
So in a way really you have kind of a signature already of what then followed. And I think
it was that Rotter-Kelly combination that provided the context sort of.
Mahzarin Banaji: Yeah, I don’t want this message to not sort of get through us so I
just want to reinstate that graduate students have a lot of power. They can bring individual
faculty together who would never otherwise be together. I mean, some of my most interesting
work has come from a student who’s connected me up to a developmental psychologist and
so on. I think this is a very important message for graduate students that they can do that.
Walter Mischel: Just to pick up on that for a moment, in the first Psych Review paper
I ever wrote, which proposed a set of person variables, the first one is Kelly, the effect
of the construal. The “effect of how a situation is encoded” is the word I used. But encoding
and construing are the same thing. And the second one is the effect of expectations.
So really, the pieces of it, of the two combined, are certainly at the core of the attempt to
develop a reconceptualization of personality. Rotter had never thought about it in terms
of personality. He thought he was talking about variables.
Mahzarin Banaji: But the staying power of these ideas, construal, is still at the center
of psychology. And I’m seeing a lot of reinforcement learning coming back in a very new form today.
Several junior people in my department use reinforcement learning as the model for moral
cognition, for example. I would never have thought that 20 years ago. I would’ve thought
that there’s no way that that would ever come back. And yet it’s doing such great
work for us again because those principles are very powerful and computational ways of
reinserting them into psychology — Walter Mischel: As long as one can realize
that the concept of reinforcement doesn’t have to be palettes. It doesn’t have to
be pigeon food. It’s really whatever it is that makes it happen. But let me go back
for a moment to the psychoanalysis and how long it took to get away from it, which I
think was really what you were asking about. I’m very, very glad that I went into clinical
psychology, although I really barely practiced it. It made a huge difference because both
the exposure to clinical populations and an internship in places that then were called,
for example, the Columbus, Ohio, the Ohio School for the Feeble-Minded. That is one.
Mahzarin Banaji: Yes, that’s what it was called.
Walter Mischel: And another one for the insane. That those experiences were enormously important
experiences but the thing that really did in psychoanalysis for me was the internship
experience at the Chillicothe VA Hospital because it showed me how awful the application
of psychoanalytic thinking was in stereotypic ways to every patient so that whoever the
patient was, they came out perfect in Freudian theory or at least in this kind of botched
version of Freudian theory that was going on at the time. And there was zero connection
between diagnosis and treatment. So I think if you want to understand why you
liked Personality and Assessment as a book, I think part of what drove that book even
if it’s not talked about in it, is that rebellion against Kelly’s definition of
hostility was hostility is when you are forcing something. We are forcing evidence into a
construct and it’s not fitting but you’re holding on to the construct. So you’re just
pushing it and pushing it even though you keep seeing it’s not working. So I think
that, that experience of sitting in the VA Hospital and calculating what this thing was
costing at the case conferences. So similar experience that I had when I was
consulting for the Peace Corps which was interviewing candidates who would be appropriate to go
to Africa. And what those projects invariably got was huge reliability and zero validity.
That is, everybody agreed with everybody and it was perfect and they got it dead wrong.
So that’s part of what drove the Personality and Assessment book. It was sort of a cry
against that. Mahzarin Banaji: Yet those ideas have remained
for so much longer than you would ever think. Walter Mischel: Yes.
Mahzarin Banaji: The fact that clinical training even today has the remnants of that.
Walter Mischel: But nothing ever happens unless you get a better alternative. It wasn’t
really until social learning became alive as a treatment alternative. The simpler explanations, for example, Frieud,’s classic case of Little Hans has been used by me and Im
sure many others as a demonstration of how a simple conditioning [sounds like] explanation
of why this poor little kid was being tortured by his parents and by remote control by Freud
who was being accused by his mother of playing with his widler [sounds like] too much. This
is from the book. Playing with his — okay. And all of that based on the fact that he
didn’t want to go out in the street anymore after he saw a horse and a wagon overturned
and the horse on its back dying. And then the interpretation that the father with the
assistance of Freud gave was that, “Did you see that the horse’s muzzle, that it
looked a lot like a mustache. And the mustache is the father.” On the other hand, one could
do a simple classical conditioning interpretation. Poor Hans, who didn’t want to go out on the street anymore because he was traumatized by the
horse falling over, which is a very hard sight for a four year old.
Mahzarin Banaji: Yeah. So people from the audience are shaking their head because they
cannot believe this. And I think — Walter Mischel: Well, all you have to do is
read the case. Mahzarin Banaji: To read the case and then
to also ask what we are saying today that in 40 years to an audience sitting here will
sound similar. We have to be ready for that. Walter Mischel: No, we have to expect it.
Mahzarin Banaji: The possibility of that, yeah.
Walter Mischel: Yeah, we absolutely have to expect it.
Mahzarin Banaji: I know you spent a few years at Harvard, and let me see if I can ask those
questions tactfully. Would you say that it taught you about the kind of psychologist
you didn’t want to be and then you ran to Stanford as quickly as you could?
Walter Mischel: Well, it’s certainly true I ran to Stanford as quickly as I could.
Mahzarin Banaji: Boston was gray and San Francisco was a technicolor [cross-talking].
Walter Mischel: Yes, absolutely. I was drawn —
Mahzarin Banaji: Not to mention that Leon Festinger showed up to pick you up in a sports
car, in a red sports car. Walter Mischel: Red Mercedes with the top
down. Mahzarin Banaji: Red Mercedes.
Walter Mischel: Well, I was drawn to La La Land. I think that I was at the Harvard at
a particularly insane time not just at Harvard but in the culture because I had the unique
experience of co-teaching a course with Tim Leary. I don’t know if this audience is
too young to know who Tim Leary was but he’s the one who really introduced the counterculture.
He is the one who suggested to young people to “turn on, tune in, drop out.” So it
was very interesting to have Harvard Graduate School at least in my areas go away from traditional
training, whatever it was at the time, to become sort of headquarters for these packages
that were coming from a chemical company in Switzerland that were being delivered along
with the mail. It was LSD of course. Mahzarin Banaji: And again, I think you’re
speaking in code. This meant that class assignments were that you had to have an LSD trip as your
class assignment. Walter Mischel: So I was very glad to go to
La La Land. Mahzarin Banaji: What a boring person you
are, Walter. So you go to Stanford and you have 21 wonderful years. It was a great department
and it is there actually that the idea solidified into sort of a theory —
Walter Mischel: Well, it’s there that I had a unique experience that I’m not sure
how possible it is currently. But the unique experience was to be in a department that
gave me tenure and allowed me to have basically seven years in which to write a book because
they had faith in me and in the book even though they haven’t seen the book it yet.
I mean, I still had to do lots of other things and so on, but I didn’t have this crazy
pressure to publish and publish and publish just to get —
Mahzarin Banaji: I’d look at your vitae so I know that you were publishing a lot so
I want to make sure that we get that. But you’re right about places that explicitly
say doesn’t matter if it’s slow as long as the issues you’re working on are important
and hard and you’re working towards having impact in some way.
Walter Mischel: Yeah. Mahzarin Banaji: And I see a real difference
between institutions that either allow that and I would hope that more of them would.
But with the threat to tenure in many places, I see this is becoming a rare and rarer thing.
It’s a sad comment on our society. Walter Mischel: But what that faith allowed
me to do, because the question that we’ve talked about just as friends has been how
I’d get to the idea that the consistency of personality isn’t what is intuitively
assumed. Maybe there was some cueing in the unconscious from my mother and my father and
their personal transformation. Maybe it was from the recognition of how dramatically different
things where when as a graduate student I was studying delay of gratification in Trinidad
and in Tobago and so on. So just exposure to different cultures, exposure to the institutions
in Columbus, Ohio that showed me little kids in an institution for the feebleminded who
were as bright as a button, except that they were being made insane by the place in which
they were living and being hosed down and so on. It was just awful.
So having those experiences was very nice, but then I started to have a job in which
you didn’t take LSD as a class requirement. And I realized that my job is to teach personality
assessment. So I looked at the literature a lot. And at that time, you couldn’t Google,
you couldn’t do any of this stuff. You just had to go and get a journal article or a book.
It was very different — Mahzarin Banaji: In a library.
Walter Mischel: In a library. It was a completely different way of thinking and doing research.
I think the information technology revolution is fantastic, but the way I wrote my, quote,
“popular book” in two years ago and the way I wrote the 68 book has no connection.
I mean, they’re totally different experiences. So I started reading anything that had to
do with personality in journal articles. And I saw a pattern that you had to be blind not
to see it if you were reading the literature. Mahzarin Banaji: Like the Hartshorne and May
study? Walter Mischel: Yeah, starting with Hartshorne
and May but then the difference was that Hartshorne and May had a huge data set and they didn’t
apologize for it. They didn’t say maybe we made a mistake. They said look at this
stuff, and nobody did. Absolutely, nobody did.
Mahzarin Banaji: This is a study in which as I recall, young children —
Walter Mischel: School children. Mahzarin Banaji: — school children would
show great honesty in one domain but not in another. They might cheat on a test but not
necessarily cheat on money or whatever — Walter Mischel: Or even in another class.
Mahzarin Banaji: Or in another classroom, yeah.
Walter Mischel: Not in French but yes in math. Mahzarin Banaji: Yes, cheat in math.
Walter Mischel: So highly specific, highly contextual. So that was just set aside. That
was just some kind of a problem that nobody really was ready to take seriously. But then
I looked at the endless doctoral dissertations and the endless other studies on traits. And
they all wound up, really, you can go back and look at it, with the conclusion that said
it was an apology. I’m sorry, my methods, something obviously wrong which is why I didn’t
get this. But the assumption of consistency was so strong that people reported their data
honestly and said there’s something wrong here. I did it wrong. Please publish anyway.
But it was such a consistent theme that what was being assumed was not being found. So
all I did in the 68 book was put it together and say one simple thing, What if it isn’t
the methodology? What if it’s the assumption? And that drove the book.
Mahzarin Banaji: Yeah. I love that part. So I assume this happens all the time. That there
is dogma, even in little domain [cross-talking]. Walter Mischel: Which becomes the reality,
that’�s how it is. Mahzarin Banaji: Yeah, which becomes the reality.
Walter Mischel: That’s how it is. Yeah. Mahzarin Banaji: They’re called alternative
facts sometimes. The power of that, I almost feel, again, I think these interviews of the
kind we’re doing, to me their value is for a younger generation of people to whom some
of this will sound surprising, yet the question is can it be applied to what they’re feeling
right now. I think, yes, that perhaps one of the jobs of a young person is to say, “They
keep saying this but the Emperor has no clothes.� That, I think somebody who is not as immersed
in the field can do with a clear eye that you were able to do because you hadn’t bought
into the dogma yet. So that’s a takeaway for me.
So, the response to that idea, the furor, how do you understand it? I have a very hard
time understanding why there was the kind of reaction to it. Why did people find it
so difficult that maybe people are different in different circumstances, that social environments
matter? What do you think people were hearing you say and what was it threatening? When
you said that, what was the threat to? Why was that not easily accepted?
Walter Mischel: I think it’s a very important question. I think what happened was that the
divide between social psychology and personality psychology widened, which was the opposite
effect of what I was hoping for, which was that it would close. So to me, it was a complete
misinterpretation by both the personality psychologists who thought, “This guy is
our enemy. He’s committing treason. He’s saying there is no personality.” That was
the reaction of the personality side. And that was, again, if you go back, if we play
psychoanalyst for a moment, modern psychoanalyst and look at it in terms of rejection, for
me, one of the most painful things was to go to personality meetings, personality conventions
and have my friends not speak with me. That�s a fact. Have people you’re ready to embrace
and walk away. Mahzarin Banaji: I’ll remember that when
I get snubbed and say it happened to Walter as well.
Walter Mischel: But I think the key is this. The personality people thought it’s an attack
on personality and that this guy is creating a person versus situation debate. The social
psychologists were exuberant but got it equally wrong, equally wrong, thinking it’s all
in the situation. Why on earth didn’t anybody realize that what the book is about and what
the issue is about is person by situation interaction. Daniel Kahneman has quoted to
me something that his mentor, Postman, said to him an eternity ago, which is the human
brain has not yet evolved to the point where it can deal with interaction.
Mahzarin Banaji: Yes, I was about to say that because I think we’ve seen it in so many
other places. I think nature-nurture is exactly in a sense the same thing. It’s still so
hard for us. Walter Mischel: It’s exactly the same. It’s
the main query [sounds like]. Is it nature? Is it nurture? These are really the stupidest
questions. These are 19th century questions that are still being asked. In the United
States, well, can you say, 60 percent of the people don’t believe in evolution.
Mahzarin Banaji: Yes, exactly. I think you’re right. We should just be aware that it is
very hard. I didn’t know about Leo Postman having said that interaction is just hard
— Walter Mischel: What I’m told by Danny Kahneman.
Mahzarin Banaji: As told by Danny Kahneman. Maybe that helps us when we fail to understand
it. But I’ve seen this in a variety of places, or something like our inability to grapple
with dualism. These are [cross-talking] Walter Mischel: I think it’s tendency, really.
Obviously, we can’t overemphasize how easy it is to make dichotomies and how hard it
is to really grasp what an interaction means. Even professionally, it’s poisonous because
if you come with a paper to an editor and it’s got more than gender or age or socioeconomic
class or something, theyll take one interaction. But come with three interactions, come with
four, come with five and it’s crazy. I mean, you can’t get published. There are too many
interactions. You can’t wrap your head around it.
But I mean, the attempt to think that you can do personality more simply than you – yeah
– than you can do a urine analysis. You got to have something when 10 minutes you can
figure it out, which is, of course, what’s also been the fate of the marshmallows test
where there’s this over-interpretation of what that poor little thing. And the marshmallows
are presented as if they’re this large, this is good for the marshmallow companies,
but it’s not true. The marshmallows we use were this tiny – deliberately – to have a
very tight conflict between one teeny little one and two teeny little ones. The whole idea
was to have a methodology where there’s a really big conflict.
Mahzarin Banaji: So let’s get to that because we don’t have endless time. You’ve done
so much work. You’ve published more than 200 papers in personality and social and developmental
and cognitive psychology. But there is one line of work that will be most people’s
first free associate to the name Walter Mischel, and that association is still a little round,
white edible — a marshmallow. So famous is your marshmallow test that in the week of
the Trump election, the New Yorker carried a lovely cartoon in which the judge is asking
Donald — Walter Mischel: At the inauguration.
Mahzarin Banaji: Pardon me. Walter Mischel: At an inauguration ceremony.
Mahzarin Banaji: The inauguration ceremony, Donald Trump is standing there with his hand
up waiting to be sworn in as president and the judge says something like, “I can give
you one marshmallow now or if you wait 10 minutes, I can give you two and swear you
in as president.” And so let’s start with this basic idea of delaying gratification,
the whole arc and then the meme it has now become. Tell us how it happened.
Walter Mischel: The arc begins in the early 1960s when I was at Stanford and had three
daughters closely spaced, one after the other. These kids went through something that I thought
was amazing, which is a transformation that anybody who has seen children develop sees,
which is they go really from very impulsive, from very immediate still at about one, one-and-a-half.
And then at two, things begin to change a little bit. As Michael Posner says, before
two we can do anything we want with them in experiments. After two, they come in with
their own plans. And I think that really by three, things start
really happening. And then four to five is an amazing area, where if you’re talking
years, you’re way off. You got to be talking days and weeks, at the most months in order
to analyze the data properly because what happens is fantastic, I mean, to become human.
And in that process, I realized I didn’t have a clue about what’s going on in their
heads. How are they doing this? So that’s the origin of the work. The intention
was to, first of all, you don’t get anywhere if you don’t have a method in science. So
I needed a method. And we worked very hard, I mean, the wonderful graduate students that
I had in that period, couple of whom already gone. I mean passed away. Ebbe Ebbesen and
Bert Moore who died recently, they were critically involved in this. We worked very, very hard
to get the method. Mahzarin Banaji: So were there other failures
before the marshmallow test came along? Had you tried other things?
Walter Mischel: Oh, yeah. We spent four or five years from the time that I came trying
to get a microscope, trying to find a method that would allow us to study what happened
in my children’s heads in that period. That was the goal. Again, Stanford at the time
allowed me not only the time to write the book but the time to do these studies.
Mahzarin Banaji: I’ve often turned the Kurt Lewin sentence on its head and said there
is nothing so theoretical as a good method. Walter Mischel: Yeah, yeah. We tried everything.
In fact, it wasn’t just marshmallows. We came up with all kinds of stuff that resulted
in my first grant to the federal government being rejected with a very short comment.
They urged me to apply to a candy company. Mahzarin Banaji: You know I’ve told you,
you should do advertisements for marshmallow companies.
Walter Mischel: But I want to make it clear, it’s not just the marshmallows. The whole
idea was to have the kids pick the goodies they want. So if it’s Oreo cookie, one versus
two. And we had these debates, serious co-pilot work that felt endless to figure out do we
have this versus another type. Do you change the nature of the reinforcement of the reward,
or do you stick with quantity? Ultimately, I decided that there’s so much loose [sounds
like] flying around anyway that we better stay with one versus two within one category
that the kid really likes, really wants, and above all, to create a situation where you
have a distribution. Now, again, we had the problem of an enormously
homogeneous sample because the work began at the Bing Nursery School of Stanford University.
It’s a preschool that all my kids went to. And they tell me that one of the conversations
that kids had with each other there was, in which area did your daddy get his Nobel Prize?
Which is not the usual way, right? So that�s why I’m very glad that we did a lot of those
studies also in the South Bronx and that people like Stephanie Carlson and colleagues had
been doing them in other places and so on. Mahzarin Banaji: And we now know it’s a
robust phenomenon that captures something very essential about human nature. Now, there
are hundreds of studies you all did and thousands of more that other people have done. But the
one that I think most people enjoy hearing about is your follow up work with these kids.
Walter Mischel: Well, I mean, the follow up work with the kids, again, the credit line
goes to the daughters because over the kitchen table I was chatting with them as they grew
to become 10 and 12 and 13 in rapid succession about how’s Sammy doing, and they made comments.
At one point, I decided, why don’t I just jot down what they say. I mean, my daughters
were not in the sample that we ever analyzed and used, they were excluded. But I started
looking and making small sample correlations that really was surprising. So by the time
they were 12 and 13, I decided it’s time to really take a look and we found interesting
connections. I think there has been a lot of exaggeration
of the magnitude of the effects, again, in the attempt to simplify things. There were
correlations. First of all, the correlations come in what’s called the diagnostic condition
that is much of the work that we did. Virtually all of it were experiments. So if you’re
giving kids instructions that make it very hard or very easy as a result of what we’re
learning in the experiments, you’re obviously not going to find out what the role of individual
differences is because you just, as an independent variable, suggested to the child, when you
want to you can make believe. “It isn’t really a marshmallow, it’s just a picture.
You know what a picture is?” “Yes, it’s something with a frame around it. “Yes,
if you want to, while you’re waiting, you can put a frame around it in your head.”
By doing that, the same child who’s not going to wait more than 40 seconds is going
to wait quite a long time. And if you ask how did you do it, Amy? The answer is you
can’t eat a picture, which tells you something about George Kelly reincarnated, which is
that the representation, a mental representation of the thing carries the force.
So if you look in the diagnostic condition only, you get correlations. Some of the correlations
are impressive and interesting, particular when they’re on things like SAT scores,
or in the early 30s on things like body mass index. But they should not be over interpreted.
They should not be seen as one’s fate because that’s absolutely wrong. It accounts for
still a small percent of the variance and it’s everything but one’s fate. However,
having those skills – having those skills – which turned our really to be what’s now
called EF or executive function, gives people freedom, what I think of as freedom. It gives
them the ability. It means that they can transform stimuli.
Mahzarin Banaji: To me, this is the most powerful idea from this work obviously. I assume that’s
why you even chose to write a popular book on it.
Walter Mischel: Yes. Mahzarin Banaji: Because you realize that
giving this idea and putting it in the hands of ordinary people will demonstrate to them
the extent to which they have control over their behavior.
Walter Mischel: That they can have control. Mahzarin Banaji: If not, their minds, certainly
the regulation of their behavior. And I think of that as usually important idea.
Walter Mischel: And identifying a process that’s still going on in other people’s
research, identifying the specific cognitive skills that are teachable and that enable
this kind of freedom. Mahzarin Banaji: Absolutely, now it’s the
result for the ages. Walter Mischel: If you think of behaviorism
in its earliest simplistic forms, it was all about stimulus control. If you think about
what’s going on in that area of emotion regulation and self-regulation now, it’s
all about self-control. It’s all about the way in which we can transform the stimulus
so the marshmallows aren’t controlling us, we’re controlling them.
Mahzarin Banaji: Yes. Great, I love that. Why don’t we talk in the last few minutes
we have about the Golden Goose Award. You won it with a couple of your colleagues —
Walter Mischel: With Philip Peake and Yuichi Shoda.
Mahzarin Banaji: — with Philip Peake and Yuichi Shoda, who were crucial to the work
that you all did. But it’s a very unique award and I’d like you to say a little bit
about what the award is for and sort of your own sense of the importance of basic research
in the service of doing things that transform human lives to be happier and healthier and
better. Yeah. Walter Mischel: Which is what clinical psychology
is supposed to do. It’s an award with a peculiar label, Golden Goose, because there
was a senator quite many decades ago, 40 years ago or something like that, Proxmire by name,
who made great fun particularly of social psychological work and created something called
the Golden Fleece Award in an attempt to sort of really demonize and get rid of federal
funding for psychological science work that deals with whatever experiments people are
doing at the time, which has suddenly become a very timely issue again with the present
administration. I gather there are problems not only in the United States on this but
there sure are problems in the United States with it.
The Golden Goose Award is an attempt decades later to identify work most of which is Nobel
prize-winning by other people, but in psychology they pick this work as an example of what
— and it’s in the Library of Congress which is a beautiful setting, it’s given actually
by Congress as well as supported by all the science organizations to honor research that
is basic science in its beginnings. And that although they don’t say it in the citation
that NIH rejected and said apply to a candy company, and then actually turns out to do
something for human welfare. So that’s what the award is about.
Mahzarin Banaji: That’s wonderful. So you mentored many people, not just students in
your own lab but you have been somebody who looks out for interesting ideas that you see.
I remember your attention to work on epigenetics as being that way, your support of neuroscience.
Say a little bit about the mentor-mentee relationship, but also what you would want young people
in the field today to know about how to start to imagine themselves as young as they are
as being mentors to people who are coming along.
Walter Mischel: I think what really turns me on is a young person’s got a burning
goal. And that they have to come up with the passion. I mean, I can try to arouse a little
passion, but it’s much better if you’ve got somebody who’s already got something
cooking, something that they’re eager to do. Then it becomes really fun because you’re
trying to find a method together to turn that into a problem that somebody can devote a
life to. And I think great students of which I’d been blessed with many, really many
wonderful ones, are the ones who thrive when they have that opportunity, which is you don’t
stick them into what you’re doing. You see how what you’re doing can help go with their
goal, with their vision. Ethan Kross was one of my last students, now
at the University of Michigan, who was an example of that too. He wanted to understand
this idea of Susan Nolen-Hoeksema who�s passed away about how, if you start puzzling
about something, ruminating something, how come some people get depressed and some people
get over it. What’s the difference? What kind of thinking about what’s bothering
you is going to get you depressed and going the wrong way? What kind is going to get you
the right way? So that’s becomes something for which you
can make a method, namely, especially when you make the connections. If I’ve got advice
of any kind, that old uncle’s advice, the advice would be, first of all, don’t listen
to advice. But in case you would like a little free [sounds like], look for the hyphens.
People have asked are you a personality psychologist or a social psychologist or a cognitive something
or what are you? A developmental, I really don’t know, certainly, a clinical psychologist
in motivation. But it’s about hyphens and I think this
is very relevant to the recognition that if I had a second life, I’d be very interested
in what’s the connection between the biological immune system and the psychological immune
system. Epigenetics, yeah, sure, but exactly what are the ways in which humans can use
their brains to change which parts of their genomes are activated and which parts are
deactivated? I mean, wow. So it seems to me there are enormous opportunities if we can
get over the rigidities of training of, again, putting people, students, into molds and saying
go do this because I’ve been doing it all my life.
Mahzarin Banaji: Well, I was going to say that you are a national treasure, but in the
spirit of this international conference, I’m going to say that your ideas belong to the
world, that you’ve helped us understand ourselves better, and you’ve given us a
view of human beings as a constantly improving species. For this, I am, we are all extremely
grateful. Thank you so much for spending this time with us.
Walter Mischel: Thank you. Thank you very much. Thank you.


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