To Have and Have Not

According to the personality theory he himself propounded, emotionalism is a trait that is maximally expressed and played out in the bedroom, on a bench in a public garden or during a romantic evening by the seashore with a red sunset as backdrop. In those situations, Walter Mischel says, the emotional person betrays his feelings.

If receiving an honorary doctorate from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem thrills him, he doesn't show it. Is he sentimental? It's hard to know. Is Walter Mischel, a professor of psychology at Columbia University, inclined to hide his emotions? According to the personality theory he himself propounded, emotionalism is a trait that is maximally expressed and played out in the bedroom, on a bench in a public garden or during a romantic evening by the seashore with a red sunset as backdrop. In those situations, Mischel says, the emotional person betrays his feelings.

Prof. Mischel does not betray anything voluntarily. The features of his enigmatic face are intriguing, but sealed. He enters the lobby of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem with a springy, athletic stride, his fashionable bald head lending him a contemporary look. The vitality he projects, despite his 80 years, is quite striking.

Mischel is an icon, a revolutionary and a rebel. In a ranking of who's who in psychology published by the Review of General Psychology of the American Psychological Association, his name appears in 25th place on a list of the 100 most influential psychologists of the 20th century. Just ahead of him are Carl Jung, in 23rd place, and Ivan Pavlov, who is ranked 24th. On the list of living psychologists, Mischel is in third place.

He gained fame in the late 1960s and early 1970s in two areas: personality theory and mechanisms of self-control. The human personality, Mischel concluded, is the sum total of the situations in which a person functions and is dependent on the context in which these traits are given expression. If someone is said to be nice, Mischel will ask when he is nice. If he is termed miserly, irascible, violent, a liar or generous, Mischel will want to know where - in what specific situation. Otherwise, such descriptions lack genuine validity, and cannot be used as a basis of predicting behavior.

His 1968 book "Personality and Assessment" changed the agenda in the realm of personality theory. By means of many studies over the years, he succeeded in refuting the previously prevalent classic supposition that human behavior is consistent in differing situations. Reality, according to Mischel, is an interaction between diverse situations. He posits an "if-then" model for personality psychology, in which the implication is that a person might behave nicely in situation A but not in situation B. "To say that someone possesses high morality is to say little about him," Mischel explains. "To define a person by means of any one broad trait is overly simplistic and ignores the complexity of his personality and the range of human situations in which he functions. It does not adequately describe the person and it is mute about why he behaves and thinks as he does."

Mischel's professional colleagues rejected his findings in disgust. He was spouting nonsense, they claimed. Nice is nice is nice at all times and in every situation.

"Terrible things were said about me," Mischel recalls. "When I published my study, I was looked on as the devil of the field. People said I was going to destroy the entire profession. But that didn't happen. A professional journal called me 'the prime villain of personality theory.' Another wrote, 'Once upon a time ... many years ago, we did not have a personality.' And the temporary loss of personality was attributed to Mischel. Not long ago, an overwrought student told me that on tests to receive a license to practice psychology one of the questions is, 'Which psychologist does not believe in personality?' The right answer is 'Walter Mischel.'

"It's misleading to say that Mischel does not believe in personality," he continues. "As a scientist, I just don't believe in reducing the complexity and richness of human personality to a few simplistic categories like 'sociable' or 'conscientious' or "aggressive'."

Mischel celebrates his clear victory over his opponents by accepting awards - in 1984 he received the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award from the American Psychological Association - publishing articles, gaining international recognition, being elected to institutions such as the National Academy of Sciences (2004 ) and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1991 ). Moreover, he continues to work full time as the Robert Johnston Niven Professor of Humane Letters in the Department of Psychology at Columbia.

He lives on Riverside Drive in Manhattan - a street that overlooks the Hudson River - within walking distance of the university.

In recent years, he and his third wife, Michele Myers, have been spending two months a year in Paris, in their apartment on the Left Bank. He treats retirement as some sort of bureaucratic glitch that has passed him over. "Retirement age with us was 65, then 68, 70 and 74. At my age there are no longer any retirement laws that apply to tenured academics," he says. "It's a fact. I still teach at Columbia, I have students and I am continuing to do research. I am very attached to my research and love the work. They want me to stay on - otherwise they would have sent me a signal."

Golden age

Mischel's second area of study, self-control and the ability to delay gratification, is popularly known by its unscientific name: the "marshmallow experiment." The breakthrough occurred at Stanford University in the mid-1960s. Mischel went to Stanford in 1962 (and stayed until 1982 ), after having taught in the psychology departments of the University of Colorado and Harvard. (It was at Harvard that he met his second wife, Harriet Nerlove, a student of clinical psychology and later his associate in research work. ) At Stanford, Mischel felt as though he were in a magical academic paradise. It was Stanford's golden age, notably in the psychology department, which at the time was a center of excellence with a faculty that included preeminent names in psychology: Philip Zimbardo, Albert Bandura, John William Atkinson, Markman, Leon Festinger and others. Mischel served three terms as department head. He regards his greatest success in that capacity as bringing the late Amos Tversky, the Israeli cognitive and mathematical psychologist, to Stanford. Tversky's presence, he says, "quickly illuminated the place with intellectual passion. He had a salient influence on my mode of thought and made my life at Palo Alto more interesting personally."

The nursery school at Stanford, with its transparent walls, afforded Mischel a window of opportunity to advance his studies.

"It was an ideal laboratory for observing children," he says. "I observed my three daughters - Judith, Rebecca and Linda - who were born soon one after the other, and also observed many other children. It was then that I decided that the time had come to move ahead seriously with my research on deferred gratification."

But the beginnings lay elsewhere, in the early 1950s, when Mischel was completing his doctoral studies in clinical psychology at the University of Ohio in Columbus. He had chosen Ohio for a trivial reason: "Their financial support was $50 higher than other places." His first wife, Frances Henry, whom he had married in Brooklyn, where his family settled after leaving Vienna following the Nazi annexation of Austria in 1938, received a research budget for a doctoral dissertation. Her subject was the ceremonies and rituals of the tribes of the Caribbean Islands, so they moved to Trinidad. Mischel, a generally restless person, is drawn to distant wild places as well as to the museums and culture of Europe, particularly Italy and France. In Trinidad he found an exotic haven for hidden fantasies.

In Trinidad "I lived it up," he says. "I enjoyed rum and Coca-Cola. It was an opportunity to leave Columbus, Ohio in the dead of winter and a pleasure to find myself sun-drenched in exotic regions, with interesting people, outside the classic tourist routes."

Resisting temptation

But it was there, of all places, that the uncontrollable impulse became the start of a lengthy affair with self-control and the refutation of what had been solid and unequivocal psychological doctrine. "I was interested in the behavior and the psychological state during 'spirit possession,' experienced by members of the religious cult that we were studying in the West Indies" he says. "I wanted to see if what we observed was reflected in projective personality tests such as the Rorschach, for example. When I asked participants when in their everyday state to describe what they saw in such tests, they described scenes from American movies they had seen. I soon gave up the project and started to talk to the village residents.

"There were two ethnic groups," he continues. "One was black and the other had its origins in India. Their stereotypes worked in both directions. The Indians said the blacks were not concerned about tomorrow or about their childrens' future, that they were irresponsible and lacked control. The blacks said that the Indians didn't know how to live and enjoy life, that they think only about tomorrow and hide their money under the mattress. So I decided to go to a school and see if the differences between the cultures were manifested in the children as well. We played a game. I offered the children a small chocolate today or a big chocolate when I would return the following week. That was the start of what is now considered a big area in economics - intertemporal choice - which boils down to whether you prefer NIS 100 today or NIS 1,000 in two years."

The results refuted the stereotypes, and he discovered that other variables impacted on the children's choices. Mischel started to take an interest in what motivates people, especially children, to make these hypothetical choices, to choose something now at the expense of the future. What was the mental process they experienced? Five years later this lead to his first - and well known - study at Stanford in 1969-70 with 653 4-year-olds. A researcher had each of them sit down in front of a dish with marshmallows on it. The child was told that he could eat one marshmallow immediately, after he rang a bell, or two marshmallows when the researcher would return to the room 15 minutes later.

"Some of the children were left entirely on their own - we did not instruct them - and in other studies we suggested different possible mental strategies to the children before leaving the room," Mischel says. "For example, with one group we said 'if you want to, while you're waiting you can make believe the cookies are a picture - just put a frame around them in your head.' With that instruction, a child who could not wait even a minute could easily wait the full 15 minutes. When later we asked her how come she waited so long she said 'You can't eat a picture.' In other studies we saw that when children focused on the 'hot' arousing qualities of the objects (e.g., how 'yummy and sweet' the marshmallows taste ) delay became very difficult, but when they focused on the informational 'cool' qualities (e.g., the marshmallow is puffy like a cotton ball ) waiting for them became easy. The experiments showed clearly the kinds of mental representations that enable delay of gratification or that make it quite impossible.

"Some of the children were able to delay for long periods spontaneously, which suggests they were able to distract themselves from the temptations or represent the objects in "cool" ways that made it easier to wait for them. Every object can be represented in two ways: I can focus on my desire for the cookie or for Monica Lewinsky, or avoid the desire in some way."

It's not human to repress the desire - either for the cookie or for Monica Lewinsky.

"I am interested in the ability to resist temptation that some people possess. And that depends on which part of the brain I activate when I look at Monica Lewinsky or at something else that is desired. I desire Coca-Cola with ice cubes, but I know it's not healthy, so I can quench my desire by imagining that an insect previously got into the glass or that someone stuck a dirty finger into the drink, and that will change the mental representation of the object in my eyes and in my brain."

But not to be tempted by Monica Lewinsky has to do with morals and values.

"You can use self-control for good or for ill. You could be a member of the Mafia or the head of a drugs network and possess fantastic self-control in choosing the people you kill. People with self-control have the ability to see the distant picture, what will happen to me five or 10 years down the road if I go on smoking. That is very abstract: I don't know what will happen tomorrow, many people think, so why should I be concerned with what will happen in another 10 years?"

Thirty percent of the children who took part in the marshmallow test were able to resist temptation and restrain themselves. Most of them were able to hold out for only about 30 seconds before they devoured the marshmallow. A small percentage of the children ate the marshmallow immediately, without even bothering to ring the bell. The marshmallow experiments continue to be carried out today in various parts of the world by researchers, some of whom were Mischel's students. A video that Mischel brought to Israel shows 4-year-olds in Chile being subjected to the experiment. They are placed in front of cookies filled with chocolate cream. Their reactions are amusing and show how hard it is for them to cope with this temptation. They try different techniques. They flirt with the cookies, touch them, make faces, shift the dish from side to side. One girl turned her back to the dish and covered her eyes. A boy, perhaps a future Mafioso, opened the cookie, ate the filling, stuck the two parts back together and put it back on the dish as though it were untouched.

Over the years, Mischel observed hundreds of children who had gone through the experiment, looking for a common denominator. The conclusion he reached is that self-control is achieved by a diversionary strategy. Instead of yielding to the desire, the subjects of the experiment distance themselves from it. Some sing songs, some cover their eyes, turn their head or hide under the table.

"They [the children] did not lose their desire [for the goodies], they simply put it out of their mind," Mischel says. "If you keep thinking about how tasty the marshmallow is, soon you will eat it."

Does this show that will power is learned?

"Yes, that's exactly it: you can teach yourself how to control your desire and where to channel it."

The most intriguing finding that arose from the marshmallow test was the existence of a clear correlation between the ability to defer gratification and achievements in life. This notion had its origins in the Mischel family kitchen. In table talk, he occasionally asked his daughters - who had attended the same nursery school as the children in the experiment - how their friends were doing. He discovered that the children who had been unable to restrain themselves for more than 30 seconds were faring less well in school. In 1981, he decided to return to the 653 marshmallow children, who were now in high school, and see whether his theory coincided with reality. The results of the analysis showed that the children who had held out for only 30 seconds had behavioral problems both at home and in school, produced lower SAT scores (college entrance exams ), were more stressed and found it difficult to forge social relations. The children who were able to wait 15 minutes to eat the marshmallow had, on average, an SAT score 210 points higher than the children who wanted instant gratification. Mischel and his colleagues monitored the subjects for more than 30 years. Ozlem Ayduk, a psychology professor from the University of California at Berkeley, found that the "low delayers" - those who were unable to wait - were more inclined to be overweight and had more drug problems.

Last summer, Mischel and a group of researchers asked 55 of the subjects to come to Stanford for an fMRI, a specialized brain scan. "The hope is to find particular connections in the brain that will explain why certain people can control their desires while others, who are the majority, cannot," Mischel explains. "The subjects are now 44-45. The conclusions have not been published, but it is very clear that there are differences between them."

What will happen after you find out what is going on in the brains of these people - will you invent an anti-temptation drug?

"Everyone always thinks there will be some magic pill. Maybe there will, but not now. Until then, we can teach a 5-year-old to place a frame around his cookie, teach young children to develop mechanisms that will help them change mental representations of the objects of their desire. The best example is kashrut. When something is defined as not kosher, a lot of people pass it up and consider it garbage. You do the same with regard to people: catalog them as unattractive, so you can ignore them."

The flight from Europe

Mischel was born in Vienna to parents who were from Galicia, in Poland. His father, Salomon Mischel, was a successful businessman who liked to let his mind wander while reading the newspaper and sipping coffee at his regular table in a Vienna cafe. His mother, Lola (Leah ) Mischel was an intelligent woman who had a fashionable propensity for headaches and weak nerves. Mischel's worry-free childhood came to an abrupt end in the spring of 1938, when Austria was annexed to Nazi Germany.

"Within six months we became refugees," he says. "We fled to England and from there to the United States, instead of entering the gas chambers, as happened to my friends and their families."

His family, his parents and his younger brother were spared that fate thanks to a small piece of paper that Mischel miraculously found at home.

"It's a story that's passed down in the family," he says. "I was 8. We were going through all our papers before burning them. Each of us went over some of the documents, and according to the family myth I saw a particular document and asked, 'What's this?' I think that what made me look more closely at it was a red seal or something similarly colorful. It had a picture of my grandfather, my mother's father, who died relatively young and whom I never met. It turned out that the document was a certificate of American citizenship that had been granted him. He had lived in New York for about five years around 1900. The citizenship he received was still valid in 1938. It automatically made my mother, me and my brother American citizens, and also my father could exit, because of his marriage to an American citizen."

So it was thanks to you that the family survived?

"It's a story that has never been checked out. I have a memory of it, but I know enough about memories to say that I am not sure whether the memory exists because I was told the story, or whether I truly remember the event and that this is what actually happened."

He retains other memories from occupied Vienna that are partial but intensely powerful. In one of them he sees his father walking on the street at night, below the window of their home, together with other Jews, all of them in pajamas, in a march of humiliation organized by the Nazis.

"I see him to this day. They were dragged from their beds. It's probably my sharpest memory from that period. Within less than a week after the Anschluss I was moved from the first row to the last in school. I saw members of the Hitler Youth abusing the Jews. They stomped on my new shoes, forced Orthodox Jews to eat ham sandwiches and more. Everyone knew who was a Jew and who was not - and that the Jews must be harassed."

Mischel and his family settled in Brooklyn, where he was enrolled in a kindergarten to learn English. He was 9, his younger brother was 5 .

His first memory of America: "I tried to crawl on my knees in order to look like the other 5-year-olds." His second memory: "Immediately after we arrived in America I had to undergo an intelligence test which was given in English. I had barely started to learn the language, and the teacher was very disappointed in my poor results. I suspect that this experience is not unrelated to my critique of psychological tests 30 years later."

His parents had a small variety store. "Growing up in Brooklyn was a happy time, filled with fantasies and adventure stories," Mischel relates. "I read a lot. I especially liked morbid poets such as T.S. Eliot and Russian writers such as Dostoevsky. At age 10 I started to paint, a hobby that stayed with me all my life."

Oil paints were very expensive, so Mischel found a substitute: gelatin. The Jell-O that his mother prepared as dessert, if mixed properly, produced fine food coloring. He was particularly fond of the red. Hanging in his Manhattan apartment to this day, complete and uneaten, is a self-portrait done with Jell-O colors. Mischel terms his painting "the private side of my life," though he has also exhibited in several galleries.

After school, Mischel held various odd jobs. He was a delivery boy, an elevator boy and sewed buttonholes in a clothes factory. In Vienna, he notes, his mother had been a neighbor of Freud. In Brooklyn she underwent a metamorphosis and became an industrious career woman and a caring wife and mother.

After high school, his parents hoped he would study medicine or, alternatively, enter his uncle's umbrella business. Mischel chose "wherever the girls were, in philosophy, painting, literature and poetry classes at NYU." He obtained his master's in psychology from City College of New York and then, in the early 1950s, went to Columbus, Ohio for his Ph.D. After 20 years at Stanford, Mischel received an offer from Columbia. In 1983, he returned to New York to pursue his research in personality theory and self-control.

What is your opinion of Freud?

"He had a few fantastic ideas, which were revolutionary and survived, and many more bad ideas, which did not survive. I think the mistake was to push his poor ideas, instead of working only with the good ones."

Looking back, he says, "I am happy that at the age of 18 I didn't escape into my uncle's umbrella business. The path I took still makes me get up in the morning and want to go to work. All I ask for is a little more time and not to waste too much time looking at the past."

The battle decided

Walter Mischel deserves the Nobel Prize, says Prof. Golan Shahar of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. He is one of the most important psychologists in the world, says Shahar, who teaches psychology, including personality psychology. He solved a very difficult problem. The psychologists before him thought of personality as something that was stable over the years. If I am shy, I am always shy. But when you measure this, you discover that its not correct. If I reply to a questionnaire about shyness today and in another year, the consistency will be low. Mischel, in monumental work over decades, put forward the model that shyness is situation-dependent. I am shy in very specific situations and not shy in others. Intuitively, that sounds very simple, like the other ideas that people didnt think of, but its extremely brilliant.

We have very serious differences about psychoanalysis, Shahar adds. I belong to a stream in psychoanalysis that is scientific. I think that he thinks that psychoanalytical treatment is not effective, whereas I think it is effective.

According to Prof. Mario Mikulincer, the dean of the New School of Psychology at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, in the debate between environment and genetics, environment has won big-time. No one will argue today other than people who do not conduct research and believe that situation has nothing to say that all is genetics, he says. There is now long-term research, by Prof. Avshalom Caspi, who studied a particular gene that is related to antisocial behavior in adolescents with a history of child abuse. He proved that there is no connection between the abuse and behavioral disorders or between genetics and disorders. For example, children who have this gene and grew up in regular supportive and loving homes have no disorders. Anyone who claims today that genetic tendencies are permanent and unchanging, has not read either the professional literature or Mischel in recent years.

Indeed, Mikulincer says that in the near future it will become clear that environment not only conditions the genetic disposition, but also changes it. You can see it in rats, he says. There are differences in the way mother rats lick their young an act comparable to mothers hugging their children among humans. Some rats lick more, some less. Research discovered that not only do female rats lick their young more when they become mothers, but also that a change occurs in the membrane of the gene that is responsible for licking and that after a few generations the nervous system of these rats changes. To isolate the genetic element, rats born to non-licking mothers were placed in cages of licking rats, and it turned out that when they became mothers they licked more and all the genetic modifications occurred in them. The power of the environment is vast, he continues. We know from studies about brain development how much the environment can change. A study done in San Diego found that when old rats were given challenging physical activity to do, new nerve cells are seen. The beauty of Mischels theory is that surroundings and heredity work and influence things together.

Some said he was destroying the profession.

Some said he is destroying the personality and there are still some who say he is destroying the profession, but I find that completely idiotic. The debate between social psychologists, who say that everything is environment and changing situations, and personality psychologists, who maintain that personality is everything, was decided by Mischel. He is trying to develop complex models of integration between different personality inclinations and the context in which they operate. For example, I can be miserly in one situation and generous in another; it depends where I am and who I am with.

With a girl you want to impress, for example?

Yes. If my inclination toward miserliness is equal to my inclination to impress girls, there is a good chance that if I see a beggar in the street while I am with the girl, I will give him something, but in the same situation without the girl, I will not give him anything.

Reli Avrahami