Scientist who helps explain self-control wins Grawemeyer Award


    LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Good things come to those who wait. A scientist who showed that willpower can be learned—and that it carries lifelong benefits—has won the 2011 University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award for Psychology.

    Walter Mischel, psychology professor and Niven professor of humane letters at Columbia University, will receive the $100,000 annual award.

    Taking the mystery out of the eternal challenge of resisting temptation, Mischel created a scientific method to study human self-control, demonstrated its importance and explained the psychological processes that enable people to delay gratification.

    A test he designed to study willpower known as “the marshmallow test” showed that preschool children can learn to resist an immediate treat like a single marshmallow for the promise of a larger one later, and can do so more effectively by changing the way they envision the treats.

    Mischel’s work over decades shows that willpower creates a protective buffer. The higher measures of delay time for those preschoolers later translated into higher SAT scores and better coping methods in adolescence. Later still, they had higher educational achievement and resistance to drug abuse and, in adulthood, lower rates of divorce and marital separation, fewer law violations and even lower body-mass index numbers.

    Mischel’s findings have been applied in many fields. Education researchers teach children skills in delayed gratification, while health scientists use his model to study behavior relapses and economists factor it into decision-making.

    “By demystifying the concept of willpower and subjecting it to serious scientific study, Mischel has paved the way towards an understanding not just of the psychology of self-control but of its underlying brain mechanisms as well,” said award director Woody Petry.

    Mischel, who has served as a consultant for the U.S. Veterans Administration Hospitals and Peace Corps, was elected to the National Academy of Sciences and American Academy of Arts and Science.

    He earned his doctorate in clinical psychology from The Ohio State University, which also gave him an honorary degree in 1996 and a distinguished alumnus award this year.

    Judy Hughes
    Judy Hughes is a senior communications and marketing coordinator for UofL’s Office of Communications and Marketing and associate editor of UofL Magazine. She previously worked in news as a writer and editor for a daily newspaper and The Associated Press.