William J. McGuire

Remarks offered at the 1998 Society of Experimental Social Psychology Convention

If history books and handbooks are to be our guide, the year 1898 was an important year for social psychology.  It was the year of the publication of what is reputed to be the first published experiment in social psychology.  In the American Journal of Psychology that year, pages 507-533 contain the report of a study by Norman Triplett demonstrating the influence of the presence of others on bicycling and competition.  You would be pleased if you read that paper even today.  Some archival data, followed by a careful experiment, and theories for everybody -- a mechanical suction theory, a situational encouragement theory, many personality theories, an automatic theory, and predicting everybody's ambivalence toward cognitive neuroscience, even a brain-worry theory.  This year, it's 100 years since that first experiment, and the committee thought it a good idea to recognize it in some way.

Now SESP, as an organization, is not known for its diligence in keeping records of important historical events or even caring much about them. About such matters the society's motto appears to be: "Indifferent, and proud of it."  Yet, there is no more appropriate a place than this meeting to recognize the passing of this first century.  And in selecting a speaker last November, the SESP committee showed uncanny foresight about the world of baseball by asking its own slugger, William "spelled correctly" McGuire to talk about the highlights of the past 100 seasons.

Bill McGuire is among the most original and influential thinkers of psychology's first century.  He began his career at Yale, working with Carl Hovland, and completing his first research within the then dominant tradition of learning theory.  Even in his earliest papers, there is evidence of a master experimenter at work: aesthetic designs, meticulous analyses, and complex interactions predicted with precision revealed that his use of learning theory was a tool to study the issues that moved him concerning human thought and its operation in social contexts.

At the University of Illinois, his first faculty position, he entered into a bet with a colleague who seemed perpetually anxious about publishing and obtaining tenure, that he, Bill, would not publish a single paper until after receiving tenure.  So Bill did his work, and wrote his papers, but did to submit them for publication.  The evidence is in his vita -- 10 papers appeared in 1961, the year after he was tenured.  Needless to say, he did not win the early career contribution award. But this act of daring made him an instant hero of many of us when we were graduate students.  Only I, it appears, attempted to emulate this kamikaze style, but didn' t quite pull it off.  As I've said before, Bill McGuire has the courage of my convictions.

Among the most notable of his early contributions is a highly counterintuitive idea concerning attitude change. Using the metaphor of immunization, Bill's genius was to suggest that small doses of a persuasive message would increase resistance to further attitude change instead of reducing it.  His experiments demonstrated that seemingly ephemeral mental processes can be described by laws previously considered to be true of only biological and physical systems.

During the middle years of his career, Bill continued his research on attitudes while writing exquisite reviews of attitude theory and research that simultaneously informed his peers and introduced novice students, this speaker included, to the wonders of social psychology.  He also wrote more popular inspirational pieces that are read and re-read and for which he is beloved. One such paper stands out for its role in rejuvenating social psychology.  In a paper presented at an international congress in Japan, Bill used the metaphor of yin and yang to capture the opposite yet synergistic ways in which research may be conducted.  By giving us paradoxes such as "The opposite of a great truth is also true" he offered inspiration about the discipline and its future as it waded out of its so called "crisis".

Bill served as editor of JPSP for several years personally handling 350 ms. a year.  He continues to review with vigor for dozens of journals within and outside psychology.  And he reviews in a tradition he created of which he remains the best exemplar: detailed reviews (sometime rivaling the length of the manuscript itself) of exceptional quality, known also for their kindness and support to younger scientists.

In the late seventies, Bill McGuire began a program of research to map the topology of the phenomenal self. He faulted the field for its reliance on reactive methods, and himself used the strategy of simply saying to young children: "Tell me about yourself."  The papers on self-concept showed the advances that are possible when an investigator breaks away from dominant methods  with the courage to opt for labor intensive ones.  Many experts regard Bill's research on the self as among the richest studies of uncensored human thought that this field has seen.

There are many many other accomplishments that mark this great and admired career.  Recognitions include the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award from the American Psychological Association, William James Fellow of the American Psychological Society, and the Distinguished Scientist Award from this Society in 1992.

It is a joy for Bill's colleagues to watch him and his wife and collaborator Claire walk to school each day, run their own experiments, analyze their own data, and write about their discoveries.  Both travel regularly, to what Bill describes as "hardship posts" in London and Paris, joking with local colleagues that his fame is an inverse function of the square of the distance from New Haven.

Bill McGuire's thoughts and words transformed psychological science in deep and permanent ways.  His work embodies a rare confluence of theoretical creativity, experimental rigor and aesthetic implementation.  Fortunately for us, he chose social psychology as the discipline in which to do his life's work.  Today he will speak about "How social psychology got there to here; and what we could have, would have, should have done."

With Norman Tripplett anchoring the past, Bill McGuire speaking to us about the past, the present and future, and Sheena Iyengar being our future, social psychology, it is clear has been and will be in good hands.  With great pride in the achievements of this field in its first 100 years, I present one of its foremost contributors, my colleague and friend, Bill McGuire.


William James McGuire, “father of social cognition” and leading expert on attitude change and the self-concept, died in his home in New Haven , Connecticut , on December 21, 2007 . He was surrounded by his family at the time of his death and will be missed by legions of former colleagues and students.

While serving on the faculties of Yale (1955-58, 1971-2007), the University of Illinois (1958-61), Columbia (1961-67), and the University of California at San Diego (1967-70), McGuire was for several decades the field's premier researcher of the psychology of attitude change and persuasion. His creative, groundbreaking experimental research in this area not only brought the study of attitudes and social influence to center stage in psychology, but also shaped neighboring fields in sociology, political science, communication, and marketing. McGuire was a fellow of eight divisions of the American Psychological Association and a past President of Division 8 (Personality & Social).

McGuire published dozens of influential papers on the self-concept, the relation between language and thought, the structure of ideological belief systems, and the history of social psychology. With his process-oriented studies of participants' cognitive responses to successful and unsuccessful persuasive attempts, McGuire pioneered “social cognition,” a subdiscipline focused on human information-processing that began to emerge in the 1970s at the intersection of social and cognitive psychology. He also developed his own approach to the philosophy of science, which he first labeled “contextualism” and later “perspectivism.” For this work, McGuire received the highest honors and awards psychology has to offer, including APA's Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award (1988), the Association for Psychological Science's William James Fellow Award (1989), the Society of Experimental Social Psychology's Distinguished Scientist Award (1992), and the International Society of Political Psychology's Harold Lasswell Award for Distinguished Scientific Contributions to Political Psychology (1998). He was named a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2002.

William J. McGuire was born into a poor Irish Catholic family in New York City on February 17, 1925 . His earliest memories were of accompanying his father, a milkman, on delivery routes to Harlem stores by horse and wagon at dawn. McGuire said it was World War II that provided him with his education. He joined the war effort at seventeen and ultimately played a role in the liberation of the concentration camp at Dachau . His painful experiences as a military tank-driver led him to forego automobile driving for the next 60 years. After the war, McGuire attended Fordham College on the G.I. Bill, where he studied philosophy and psychology and subsequently taught courses in rational psychology and natural theology. He returned to Europe under more fortunate circumstances in 1950-51 as a Fulbright Fellow in phenomenological philosophy at the University of Louvain in Belgium , where he encountered, among other things, the Edmund Husserl Archives, the writings of Merleau-Ponty, and the laboratory of the famous Gestalt psychologist A. E. Michotte.

The following year McGuire entered the doctoral program in psychology at Yale University . Although he expected to apply symbolic logic to Hullian learning theory, McGuire was instead taken by Carl Hovland's thriving new center for research on communication and persuasion. He learned much from Yale faculty members Irving Child, Leonard Doob, Irving Janis, and Neal Miller as well as fellow students Daniel Berlyne and Roger Shepard. McGuire's philosophical training prepared him well for the infusion of cognitivism that occurred in psychology during the 1950s. After graduation, McGuire completed postdoctoral work at the University of Minnesota with Leon Festinger, who was then developing cognitive dissonance theory.

McGuire returned to Yale as Assistant Professor for three years before moving to the University of Illinois , where he joined the Communication Research Institute under Charles Osgood. According to professional lore, a bet with an anxious colleague led McGuire to withhold publishing any articles before receiving tenure. In 1961, the year after receiving tenure, he published ten papers and returned to his home town of New York to teach at Columbia University , where his colleagues included Otto Klineberg and Stanley Schachter in psychology and Paul F. Lazarsfeld and Robert Merton in sociology. While at Columbia , it was the topic of resistance to persuasion that brought McGuire widespread admiration in social psychology. Drawing on an analogy from medicine, he proposed “inoculation theory” to explain why people's beliefs are susceptible to change in domains that are seldom exposed to persuasive attack. McGuire's ingenious experiments demonstrated that vulnerability to persuasion could be prevented by “belief immunization”—that is, by exposing an individual to a relatively weak attack on the belief and allowing him or her to engage in counter-argumentation. This research laid the groundwork for what would eventually become the “dynamic theory of thought systems” and still stands as an exemplary model of precise, elegant experimentatio n.

McGuire's reputation as a brilliant researcher and writer was thus firmly established by 1964, shortly before he published several influential literature reviews that allowed him to more fully develop the theoretical foundations of experimental work on attitude change. One of these, widely known as “ McGuire's 1968 Handbook chapter,” was a book-length manuscript of more than 80,000 words, requiring 179 small-print pages of the Handbook of Social Psychology . That chapter—along with a similarly important contribution to the 1985 edition of the Handbook — capitalized on a taxonomy that distinguished among source, message, channel, recipient, and target variables in persuasion and largely set the agenda for two decades of attitudes research.

McGuire had a reputation for being a loner, except at cocktail parties, when he revealed a gift for regaling those in attendance with humorous stories sprinkled with literary and film references. He published little with anyone other than his wife, Claire V. McGuire, who provided a solid foundation not only for the McGuire family but also for the McGuire laboratory. In no way, however, did his solitary approach to work detract from his tireless generosity in reviewing and commenting supportively on the work of students and colleagues. As editor of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology and as ad hoc reviewer for many other granting and publication outlets, McGuire wrote thousands of polite, telling action letters that rivalled the length of the original submissions. He later noted that, “ I consider my main teaching contribution during 40 years in academia to be this Stakhanovite commenting on specific manuscripts from across the nation and the world.” This sentence is characteristic of McGuire's writing in two major ways—first in that it includes a reference that was designed to send careful readers scurrying for a dictionary and, second, in that the text is fully comprehensible even without knowing that Stakhanov was a 1930s Soviet coalminer who was glorified for vastly exceeding production quotas.

McGuire moved to the University of Califor nia , San Diego at a turbulent time, when many were questioning the Vietnam War and the role of psychologists in reforming society. In what came to be known as the “crisis in social psychology,” philosophically oriented critics challenged both the universalistic aspirations of scientific psychology and what they perceived to be moral indifference among experimental psychologists to social problems. In the article “The Yin and Yang of Progress in Social Psychology: Seven Koan,” McGuire expressed some measure of sympathy with critics and seemed to acknowledge certain limitations of the information-processing approach he had pioneered, but he remained firm in his commitment to basic scientific values. He wrote:

In our father's house there are many rooms . . . there is a place for the philosopher of mind and the social philosopher, as well as for the scientific psychologist. . . . But the scientific psychologist can offer something beside and beyond these armchair thinkers in that we not only generate delusional systems, but we go further and test our delusional systems against objective data as well as for their subjective plausibility.

In 1971, McGuire returned to Yale, this time as Chair of the Department of Psychology. The next 25 years were among the most productive of his career, which is especially remarkable given that the methodology he favored in understanding the self-concept consisted of grueling analyses of qualitative data produced in response to simple, open-ended prompts such as: “Tell us about yourself.”

During this period, the McGuire family hosted innumerable dinner parties at their New Haven home for visiting speakers, departmental faculty, and Yale students. Even occasional visitors would recall the books that flooded nearly every corner of the house and the sofa pillows with portraits of Marx, Engels, and Chinese Communists that Claire had sewn from silk posters acquired from a Communist propaganda store in New York . The family's warmth and generosity, especially to graduate students and junior colleagues, spanned several generations. Many of McGuire's former students—including David Sears, Anthony Greenwald, Reid Hastie, Philip Tetlock, Deborah Prentice, Curtis Hardin, and John T. Jost—pursued scientific careers in social and political psychology due largely to his inspiration.

The vast oeuvre that followed from McGuire's self-proclaimed “delusional systems” determined the intellectual contours of twentieth century research on attitudes, social cognition, and many other psychological themes. In the late 1990s, McGuire reworked many of his most important scholarly and personal writings in a book entitled Constructing Social Psychology: Creative and Critical Processes (Cambridge University Press, 1999). M uch of his later work was undertaken in the library of the British Museum and other favorite spots in London and Paris , and his intellectual impact remains palpable in social psychological circles throughout Europe . McGuire received honorary degrees from the Eötvös Loránd University of Budapest, Hungary and the University of Bologna, Italy . To celebrate his scientific and pedagogical accomplishments at home, a conference was held in his honor at Yale University from April 19-22, 2001 . A Festschrift was published by APA in 2004; it contains the following assessment:

It is safe to say that social psychology has never seen anyone else like William J. McGuire and probably never will again. He is notorious for being brilliant, fastidious, generous, humble, grandiose, short-tempered, iconoclastic, and hilarious, and he set almost unattainable standards for the field in at least three ways. First, he started as one of the field's most painstaking and precise experimental pioneers in social cognition. . . . Later, he became one of its most ambitious and integrative historians of cumulative knowledge. . . . And by now, his reputation is secure as one of the most creative, witty, and erudite writers ever to ponder the social mind.

McGuire is survived by his wife, Claire, and their three children: Dr. James W. McGuire, Professor of Government at Wesleyan University; Dr. Anne M. McGuire, in the Editorial Department at Harvard University Press; and Steven T. McGuire of Guilford , Connecticut . John T. Jost New York University Mahzarin R. Banaji Harvard University Acknowledgements : We thank Anthony Greenwald, Curtis Hardin, and Gy ö rgy Hunyady for their contributions to this obituary.