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Lunch with Walter

13th Oct 2014

Walter Mischel, author of one of the most famous psych experiments of all time – the ‘marshmallow test’ of self-control – and with a wonderful new book summarising his work, dropped into BIT for lunch on Friday.

Walter’s work showed that the child who ate the treat, instead of waiting a few extra minutes for two treats, would later tend to do worse at school, the labour market, and in life in general. But he thinks that many people, particularly in the wider political and policy world, took away the wrong message from these dramatic headline results. In the decades of work that followed his early studies, Mischel became one of the leading critics of the ‘fixed personality view’ that became popular with the advent of psychometrics in the 60’s and 70’s (think Eysenk in the UK, Cattell et al in the USA). Walter points to the evidence on brain plasticity and epigenetics of the last two decades as having confirmed the capacity of people to learn and change, and particularly to rapidly sharpen their executive function (EF) and self-control through practice. He argues that the real lesson of epigenetics, and his own early work, is that the human genome is more like a library than a fixed script, and that situational forces and personal choices greatly affect which ‘book’, or capability, we take out over any period.

At a seminar in Whitehall, hosted by the Early Intervention Foundation, Walter along with David Willets MP and Tim Leunig, Chief Analyst and Senior Ministerial Policy Adviser at the Department for Education discussed the application of his work to public policy. The speakers emphasised the importance of developing executive functioning skills in the early years of life (age 3-4). Such foundation capabilities permit children to learn, participate and make friends at school. These early wins have cascading effects, enhancing confidence and instilling self-belief which ultimately lead to progression and success in life. While the early years may be preferable for cultivation, the speakers again pointed to the malleability of executive functioning skills over the life course and the beneficial effects the enhancement of these abilities can have at all ages.

Before parting, we chatted about the BI world more generally. ‘I think I’m the optimistic version of Danny Kahneman’ Walter remarked. If Walter is even half right about our capacity to increase executive function, it opens up a wide range of important policy ideas from pre-school to pensions. His viewpoint, like that of his colleague Carol Dweck, also has profound implications for how we think about politics and society.

Thank you Walter – your work has stimulated generations for more than half a century, and is as sharp and relevant today as ever – a personal and professional inspiration to all of us.