The self-control guru

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The Struggles of a Psychologist Studying Self-Control

Walter Mischel had a terrible time quitting smoking. He had started young, and, even as his acumen and self-knowledge grew, he just couldn’t stop. His habit continued through his years as a graduate student, at Ohio State, and into the beginning of his teaching career, as a psychologist at Harvard and then at Stanford, in the nineteen-fifties and sixties. “I was a three-packs-a-day smoker, supplemented by a pipe,” Mischel told me recently. “And, when the pipe ran out, it was supplemented by a cigar.” After the first Surgeon General’s report on the dangers of tobacco came out, in 1964, Mischel realized that his smoking could very well kill him. And yet his attempts to quit failed spectacularly. He’d stop, and then, like so many people who try to break the habit, he’d start again. He justified his continued puffing as part of his professorial image. Mischel’s story isn’t surprising—nicotine is addictive, and quitting is difficult—except for one thing: Mischel is the creator of the marshmallow test, one of the most famous experiments in the history of psychology, which is often cited as evidence of the importance of self-control. ….[READ]

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