Walter Mischel was an Austrian-born American psychologist specializing in personality theory and social psychology. He was the Robert Johnston Niven Professor of Humane Letters in the Department of Psychology at Columbia University. A Review of General Psychology survey, published in 2002, ranked Mischel as the 25th most cited psychologist of the 20th century.
Mischel was born on February 22, 1930 in Vienna, Austria, to Salomon Mischel and the former Lola Leah Schreck. He was the brother of Theodore Mischel, who became an American philosopher. When he was 8 years old his Jewish family fled with him to the United States after the Nazi occupation in 1938. He grew up in Brooklyn, New York City where he attended New York University and received his bachelor's degree (1951) and master's degree (1953).
He continued his studies under George Kelly and Julian Rotter at Ohio State University, where he received his Ph.D. in clinical psychology in 1956. He spent much of his career studying delayed gratification and life outcomes of those who were able to maintain self-control when studied. Mischel taught at the University of Colorado from 1956 to 1958, at Harvard University from 1958 to 1962, and at Stanford University from 1962 to 1983. Since 1983, Mischel was in the Department of Psychology at Columbia University.
Mischel was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2004 and to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1991. In 2007, Mischel was elected president of the Association for Psychological Science. Mischel's other honors include the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award from the American Psychological Association, the Distinguished Scientist Award of the Society of Experimental Social Psychologists, the Distinguished Contributions to Personality Award of the Society of Social and Personality Psychologists, and the Distinguished Scientist Award of American Psychological Association's Division of Clinical Psychology.
He was editor of Psychological Review and was president of the American Psychological Association Division of Social and Personality Psychology and of the Association for Research in Personality. Mischel was the recipient of the 2011 University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award in Psychology for his studies in self-control.
In 1968, Mischel published the controversial book, Personality, and Assessment, which created a paradigm crisis in personality psychology. The book touched upon the problem in trait assessment that was first identified by Gordon Allport in 1937. Mischel found that empirical studies often failed to support the fundamental traditional assumption of personality theory, that an individual's behavior with regard to an inferred trait construct (e.g. conscientiousness; sociability) remained highly consistent across diverse situations.
Instead, Mischel cautioned that an individual's behavior was highly dependent upon situational cues, rather than expressed consistently across diverse situations that differed in meaning. Mischel maintained that behavior is shaped largely by the exigencies of a given situation and that the notion that individuals act in consistent ways across different situations, reflecting the influence of underlying personality traits, is a myth.