William McGuire GRD ’54, an influential Yale social psychologist who spent decades researching topics from self-identity to persuasion, died in his New Haven home on Dec. 21, 2007. He was 82.
Those who knew McGuire — he retired in 1999 after more than 30 years on the Yale faculty — described him as refreshing, quirky, passionate, brilliant and independent: a trailblaizer in his field who is credited with developing a highly influential theory of resisting persuasion and with inspiring the community of academic psychologists when morale in the field was low.
The New York Times first reported McGuire’s death in its Monday edition.
A prolific scholar with a tenacious drive, McGuire once took a bet at the University of Illinois that he would not publish any papers until after he received tenure, recalled Mahzarin Banaji, a former Yale Psychology professor who currently teaches at Harvard. The first year after receiving tenure, he published 10.
“His kamikaze style impressed me so much,” Banaji wrote in an e-mail.
Born into a poor family in New York City in 1925, McGuire drove an Army tank in the European theater in World War II. When he returned to the United States, the GI Bill provided for him to attended Fordham University. After graduating with a degree in psychology and philosophy, he went on to study philosophy as a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Louvain in Belgium.
Upon completing his studies in Belgium, McGuire was torn between pursuing a graduate degree in psychology or philosophy, said Claire McGuire, his wife of 53 years. After obtaining his doctorate, McGuire did postdoctoral work at the University of Minnesota. He then became an assistant professor of Psychology at Yale in 1955, a post he left three years later to teach at the University of Illinois.
After receiving tenure at the university, McGuire moved back to New York City in 1961 to teach at Columbia University, where he cultivated a reputation for academic innovation. During his time at Columbia he researched attitude change and developed his “inoculation theory,” which described how individuals avoid being persuaded.
After his stint at Columbia and another at the University of California at San Diego, McGuire returned to Yale and became chair of the Psychology Department in 1971.
Two years later he wrote what many in the field deem one of his most important works, “The Yin and Yang of Progress in Social Psychology.”
The paper reinvigorated a field that was plagued by internal doubt at the time, said Yale Psychology professor Marianne LaFrance, who was a graduate student at Boston University when the paper was published. LaFrance said she was so impressed by the paper that she wrote McGuire fan mail.
“He wrote back a thoughtful, funny, interesting, erudite letter,” she said. “I wasn’t expecting he would answer at all. It still makes me almost tear up.”
During his years at Yale, McGuire continued his frenzied pace of scholarship, and he and his wife were known for hosting intellectual parties at their home in New Haven that attracted graduate students and members of the Department.
McGuire continued to influence his students long after they graduated and went on to careers of their own. At a conference held at Yale in 2001 in McGuire’s honor, New York University Psychology professor John Jost said the lessons he learned from McGuire continued to inspire him in his own career.
“As a former student of his, I can tell you that Bill is that rare and incredible teacher from whom you continue to learn even years after you leave his tutelage, as his words sink in and contexts arise to give new meaning to them,” he told the audience at the time.
As well as being a scholar, McGuire was a dedicated father, his son James McGuire, a professor of government at Wesleyan University, said. “Despite the tremendous demands of his job, he’d spend a lot of time with us,” James McGuire recalled. McGuire said he entered academia “thanks to the example [my father] has set and the help he has given me along the way.”
Even after his retirement, McGuire did not slow down. At the age of 75, he hiked 500 kilometers across Spain.
“It took him the month of May,” Claire McGuire said. “I think that was one of his proudest moments. He did the whole thing on foot with a backpack, never having a backpack on before.”
McGuire is survived by his wife, a daughter and two sons.