When Gary Wells was a young graduate student, a chance event shaped his future career.
“I overheard the rantings of a lawyer complaining that his client had been mistakenly identified from a lineup,” said Wells, professor of psychology and Distinguished Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences and the Wendy and Mark Stavish Chair in the Social Sciences. “So I developed a paradigm to find out how reliable eyewitness identifications were. It was a brash idea for a 23-year-old graduate student to do, and I am not sure where I got the nerve.”
That brash idea has earned Wells a lifetime achievement award.
An internationally respected eyewitness identification researcher, Wells has been selected as the recipient of the Association for Psychological Science’s 2017 James McKeen Cattell Fellow Award for a lifetime of outstanding contributions to applied psychological research.
The Association for Psychological Science (APS), based in Washington, D.C., has approximately 26,000 members and includes the leading psychological scientists and academics, clinicians, researchers, teachers, and administrators from the United States and other countries. APS publishes many of the top peer-reviewed journals in scientific psychology.
The Cattell Award is the highest honor conferred by APS.
“The greatest honor is to get recognition from your professional colleagues, in this case other psychological scientists,” said Wells. “But, I was particularly moved by the fact that this was a surprise and that colleagues at other universities were preparing this nomination without my knowledge.”
Wells, who would like to acknowledge the former Ph.D. students who have contributed to the success of his research program, said the real award has been the opportunity to improve practices and policies in the legal system.
Mistaken eyewitness identification is a leading cause of wrongful conviction, and Wells’ research-based proposals on police lineup procedures have prompted best practice changes and legal reform in jurisdictions across the United States. His original conceptual and empirical research are foundational to eyewitness identification literature in widespread use today.
Wells was a founding member of the U.S. Department of Justice group that developed the first national guidelines for eyewitness evidence, and he co-chaired the panel that wrote the Justice Department training manual on eyewitness identification evidence.
Along with his outstanding research contributions, Wells has also served as a leader in creating public respect for the application of psychological science in solving important social problems.
He has traveled to all 50 states to collaborate with law enforcement, law schools, prosecutors, judges, and policy makers and has been interviewed or featured in publications such as the New York Times, the LA Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek and Discover, among others. He has appeared on programs including 60 Minutes, 48 Hours, NBC Nightly News, Dr. Phil, and Oprah.
The award will be presented at the opening ceremonies of the APS Convention in Boston, Mass. in 2017.