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Self-control expert wins Grawemeyer Award

December 8, 2010
by News release
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Walter Mischel, the scienist and psychology professor who showed that willpower can be learned and carries lifelong benefits, has won the 2011 University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award for Psychology.

Mischel, a Niven professor of humane letters at Columbia University, has served as a consultant for the U.S. Veterans Administration Hospitals and Peace Corps, and was elected to the National Academy of Sciences and American Academy of Arts and Science.

Five Grawemeyer Awards are presented each year for outstanding works in music composition, ideas improving world order, psychology, education and religion. Mischel will receive an annual award of $100,000.

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.

Winners of the other 2011 Grawemeyer Awards also are being announced this week.