Walter Mischel, a revolutionary psychologist with a specialty in personality theory, died of pancreatic cancer on Sept. 12. He was 88.
Mischel was most famous for the marshmallow test, an experiment that became a pop culture touchstone. But, he said, the thrust of the experiment and its results were often misinterpreted.
His idea, which you've probably heard of, was simple enough. First, you sit a kid in front of a delicious marshmallow. Then, you tell her she will get two marshmallows if she can resist eating the marshmallow while you leave the room.
His experiment was a test of delayed gratification and, over the years, the test epitomized the idea that there are specific personality traits that we all have inside of us that are stable and consistent and will determine our lives far into the future.
"What my life has been about is in showing the potential for human beings, to not be the victims of their biographies — not their biological biographies, not their social biographies," he said. "And to show, in great detail, the many ways in which people can change what they become and how they think."
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