2017 James McKeen Cattell Fellow
Gary L. Wells
Iowa State University
Gary Wells is recognized throughout the world for applying his pioneering research on eyewitness identification errors to preventing wrongful convictions. In 1978, he introduced an essential distinction between two types of variables that influence eyewitness accuracy: system variables that the justice system controls, and estimator variables that are circumstantial factors and cannot be controlled. He went on to identify core concepts that are now universal and in the popular culture, such as the double-blind lineup in which the administrator does not know which person is the possible suspect and thus cannot inadvertently influence the eyewitness.
In 1998, as forensic DNA testing started to uncover wrongful convictions of innocent people, Wells was asked by the U.S. Attorney General to join a Department of Justice working group of police, prosecutors, and eyewitness researchers. This group went on to produce a transformative Guide for Law Enforcement on how to collect eyewitness evidence.
More than anyone else, Wells has identified the problems with eyewitness identifications, laboratory paradigms, and possible solutions. He has worked tirelessly with practitioners and policy makers to effect reform. He has raised public awareness through various news media. The study of eyewitness identification represents some of the best application that psychology has to offer—and no one has shaped this area more than Gary Wells. As the leading theoretician, researcher, reform advocate, and spokesperson, Wells is synonymous with this science and all that it has accomplished.