Walter Mischel

Walter Mischel

Ph.D., Ohio State University, 1956

Research Summary

Professor Mischel's research interests focus on: a) personality structure, process, and development, and b) self regulation (aka willpower).

Current & Future Directions

Longitudinal Studies
One of our long-term longitudinal studies examines the ways in which the ability to delay gratification, assessed in our laboratory situations in early childhood, predicts a variety of consequential developmental outcomes in the life course and serves as a protective factor against chronic vulnerabilities such as rejection sensitivity. This cohort began as preschoolers studied at the Bing Nursery School at Stanford University in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and we have been in contact with them ever since, tracing their development. Most recently, we began a home study with these individuals, focusing on their children who now are preschool age, to examine cross-generational links at both behavioral and biological levels, in collaboration with Ozlem Ayduk's laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley (Ayduk et al., 2000; Sethi et al., 2000). The other project began in the early 1980s at the Barnard Toddler Center in work with Lawrence Aber when these toddlers were studied in the classic maternal separation paradigm, and subsequently at age 4 years in the delay of gratification situation. Currently we are re-assessing them in young adulthood in studies that include cognitive, social, and, ultimately, fMRI measurement (Eigsti et al., 2005).

Self/Emotion Regulation
In related collaborative work we are exploring the psychological, physiological, brain, and genetic mechanisms that underlie adaptive self-control and emotion regulation under "hot" emotion-arousing conditions. We use a host of paradigms (e.g. longitudinal, diary, lab-based experimental, correlational) and methods (e.g. self-report, narratives, implicit, autonomic, fMRI) to address these questions (e.g., Kross et al., 2005), freely crossing disciplinary boundaries in areas that span personality, social, cognition, developmental, and cognitive neuroscience, with continuing support by NIMH Merit Awards (1989-2009).

Personality Processes and Dynamics
A closely related line of inquiry, in conjunction with Yuichi Shoda and his lab at the University of Washington, is exploring the structure, consistency, and stability of personality, guided by the Cognitive-Affective Processing Model of personality (Mischel & Shoda, 1995; Mischel, 2004). This research is currently developing methods to identify the predictable situation-specific contingencies (e.g., she does X when A but Y when B) that constitute peoples distinctive, stable if...then..., situation-behavior signatures.  It also identifies sub-types of individuals with similarities in these behavioral signatures and in the cognitive-affective processing dynamics that generate them.

Research Support
This research has been funded in large part by MERIT Award research grants to Mischel from the National Institute of Mental Health, beginning in 1989 and continuing currently, in collaboration with Yuichi Shoda at the Department of Psychology, University of Washington, as co-PI, and Ozlem Ayduk at UC, Berkeley.

Supported by an inter-disciplinary NSF ("Collaborative Research: Self-Control in the Life Course"), my colleagues at several universities and I also are examining cognitive and neural bases of self-control, in particular the ability to override impulsive responding and to delay immediate gratification in the service of delayed, but more desirable consequences and future outcomes in the Bing Longitudinal cohort and their young children. This work is linking individual differences in delay of gratification and long-term self-control patterns to basic cognitive control mechanisms and to brain anatomy and functioning. It addresses one of the most enduring challenges for a science of mind, brain, and behavior: the cognitive and neural mechanisms and dynamic processes that enable individuals to overcome strong situational pressures for impulsive, automatic responding and to exert self-control in light of anticipated future outcomes, examined concurrently at the social cognitive, behavioral, and cognitive neuroscience-brain levels of analysis.

In collaboration with K. Ochsner (PI) and C. Hart, supported by a NIDA Grant ("The Neural Bases of Affect Regulation in Drug Abuse"), we are examining the utility of applying "hot" and "cool" cognitive appraisal strategies to identify the conditions under which methamphetamine abusers can a) use reappraisal strategies to "cool" the "hot" appetitive pull of drug stimuli, b) recruit the prefrontal and cingulate mechanisms supporting these reappraisals, and c) as a consequence, reduce the perceived desirability of the "hot" drug and activation in structures like the amygdala that may contribute to their impulsive appetitive responses.

Professional Activities & Honors

  • John P. McGovern Award Lecture in Behavioral Sciences (2013), American Academy of Arts and Sciences
  • Ludwig Wittgenstein Prize (2012), Austrian Research Foundation
  • Grawemeyer Award in Psychology (2011)
  • Doctor Philosophiae Honoris Causa, Hebrew University of Jerusalem (2010)
  • Scientific Honoree, Foundation for the Advancement of Behavioral and Brain Sciences (2009)
  • President, Association for Psychological Science (2008-2009)
  • National Academy of Sciences (elected 2004)
  • Merit Award, National Institute of Mental Health, 1989 up to 2009 (awarded twice, sequentially)
  • 2005 Jack Block Award for Distinguished Contributions to Personality Psychology
  • President, Association for Research in Personality, 2002 - 2003 (elected)
  • Distinguished Scientist Award, Society of Experimental Social Psychologists (awarded in 2000)
  • Fellow of the Society of Experimental Psychologists (elected 1999)
  • Editor, Psychological Review, 2000-2003
  • Doctor of Science, Honoris Causa, Ohio State University, June 1997
  • Fellow, American Academy of Arts and Sciences (elected 1991)
  • Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award, American Psychological Association, 1982
  • Distinguished Scientist Award, American Psychological Association, Division of Clinical Psychology, 1978

Media Coverage

Jonah Lehrer. (18 May 2009). Don't! The secret of self-control. The New Yorker. (Dept. of Science)

Representative Publications

Mischel, W., & Ayduk, O. (2011). Willpower in a Cognitive-Affective Processing System: The dynamics of delay of gratification. In K. D. Vohs & R. F. Baumeister (Eds.), Handbook of self-regulation: Research, Theory, and Applications (2nd ed., pp. 83-105). New York: Guilford.

Kross, E., Mischel, W., & Shoda, Y. (2010). Enabling self-control: A cognitive affective processing system (CAPS) approach to problematic behavior. In J. Maddux & J. Tangney (Eds.), Social Psychological Foundations of Clinical Psychology (pp. 375-394).  New York: Guilford.

Mischel, W., & Shoda, Y. (2008). Toward a unified theory of personality: Integrating dispositions and processing dynamics within the Cognitive-Affective Processing System (CAPS). In O. P. John, R. W. Robins, & L. A. Pervin (Eds.), Handbook of Personality (3rd Ed., pp. 208-241). New York: Guilford.

Mischel, W., Shoda, Y., & Ayduk, O. (2008). Introduction to personality: Toward an integrative science of the person (8th ed.). New York: Wiley.

Mischel, W. (2007). Walter Mischel. In G. Lindzey & W. M. Runyan (Eds.), A History of Psychology in Autobiography (Vol. IX, pp. 229-267).  Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Eigsti, I., Zayas, V., Mischel, W., Shoda, Y., Ayduk, O., Dadlani, M. B., Davidson, M. C., Aber, J. L., & Casey, B. J. (2006).  Predictive cognitive control from preschool to late adolescence and young adulthood.  Psychological Science, 17, 478-484.

Kross, E., Ayduk, O., & Mischel, W.  (2005). When asking “why” doesn’t hurt: Distinguishing rumination from reflective processing of negative emotions. Psychological Science, 16, 709-715.

Mischel, W. (2004). Toward an integrative science of the person (Prefatory Chapter). Annual Review of Psychology, 55, 1-22.

Mischel, W., & Ayduk, O. (2004). Willpower in a cognitive-affective processing system: The dynamics of delay of gratification. In R. F. Baumeister & K. D. Vohs (Eds.), Handbook of self-regulation: Research, Theory, and Applications(pp. 99-129). New York: Guilford.

Mischel, W., Shoda, Y., & Mendoza-Denton, R. (2002). Situation-behavior profiles as a locus of consistency in personality. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 11, 50-54.

Ayduk, O., Mendoza-Denton, R., Mischel, W., Downey, G., Peake, P.K., & Rodriguez, M. (2000). Regulating the interpersonal self: Strategic self-regulation for coping with rejection sensitivity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79, 776-792.

Sethi, A., Mischel, W., Aber, L., Shoda, Y., & Rodriguez, M. (2000). The role of strategic attention deployment in development of self-regulation: Predicting preschoolers’ delay of gratification from mother-toddler interactions. Developmental Psychology, 36, 767-777.

Metcalfe, J., & Mischel, W. (1999). A hot/cool system analysis of delay of gratification: Dynamics of willpower. Psychological Review, 106, 3-19.

Mischel, W., & Shoda, Y. (1995). A cognitive-affective system theory of personality: Reconceptualizing situations, dispositions, dynamics, and invariance in personality structure. Psychological Review, 102,246-268.

Mischel, W., Shoda, Y., & Rodriguez, M. L. (1989). Delay of gratification in children. Science, 244, 933-938.

Courses Taught

Selected Publications

A cognitive-affective system theory of personality: Reconceptualizing situations, dispositions, dynamics, and invariance in personality structure.