The Case of Dr. Gary Wells


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If you had asked people what Gary Wells was up to when he was a kid, they might’ve answered “No good.” He’s come a long way from humble beginnings to becoming one of the most influential psychologists in the world for his work on eye-witness identification, police practices interfacing with crime witnesses and suspect line-ups, and law enforcement policies. He’s a rare psychologist whose articles are widely read by those outside the field, and are required for most people studying to join law enforcement.

Dr. Gary Wells introduces himself here:

He is a Distinguished Professor of Psychology and the Wendy and Mark Stavish Chair in Social Sciences at Iowa State University. That’s not bad for a guy who, by his own account, was not a great student in the early years, pretty bored and unsettled as a kid, and getting into lots of trouble. One has to imagine Gary at ages 15 or 16. His dad was a firefighter and veteran who regularly volunteered at the Kansas State Fair collecting tickets. His mom sold Avon products. During those summers when the fair was in town, Gary occasionally found himself watching the hawkers as they tried to persuade people to pay their hard earned cash for a chance to enter the tent and see the freaks and wonders therein. It may be that this even gave him his first glimpse of how best to understand persuasion and some of the social psychology of attitudes that he would eventually study, maybe not.  The most important thing that happened for his future in Psychology was that Gary fell in love.

While Gary’s parents hadn’t gone to college, in high school Gary fell in love and soon was married. Together they had a child. So now what? Was he going to stay in Hutchinson, KS? To make his way, he applied and decided to attend the Kansas State University. He would use his education to develop his interests and find a way to support his family. This wouldn’t be easy. Gary was a full-time student who took classes all week. To support his family, he worked nights and weekends. Manual labor with tough bosses and low pay. A family, 30-40 hours a week working at the jobs available to him, and a full time student. It was a lot and it must have caused more than a few difficult and endless days. Nonetheless, it was during this time that Gary got interested in Psychology — figuring it out early during his time at KSU.

Here Dr. Wells describes why he got so excited about Psychology:

In college, Gary was drawn to the youth of Psychology as a discipline and the capacity of this field to use scientific methods in the study of behavior. He saw a very real possibility to add his name to those reference lists at the back of textbooks if he contributed to the rapidly growing body of knowledge. It’s worth noting that Psychology has changed a lot over the years but it remains a relatively new science and there are vast areas of scholarship that have barely begun to be explored.

If anything has become apparent from this growing list of influential psychologists, it seems that you need to be creative enough (e.g., Dan Gilbert, Isabelle Peretz), perceptive enough (e.g., Susan Goldin-Meadow, Hal Grotevant), or audacious enough (e.g.,  Jim Sidanius, Roddy Roediger) to test and theorize about an area of human behavior that no one else has really paid much attention to. Everyday experience, political and social processes, cultural constructs, habits, and ones inner thoughts and reflections are happening all the time. Rarely do people ask why or how these things happen. They just happen. The special and super influential researchers not only ask the questions, but they then go and seek out the answers. They find them over and over, in new and interesting contexts. In part, these influential psychologists succeed and become influential because the findings are often surprising, they are always fascinating, and because they help us to better understand some critical part of ourselves, our families, our culture, and our world. And, to be fair, every influential psychologist I’ve spoken with has a pretty strong combination of all of these qualities, and each struck out with observations, creativity and audaciousness, to help us understand/better understand some part of the world.

So here’s Gary. He’s seen an avenue for his future self to do something that will meaningfully contribute to the world. And he’s ready to take it on. After working his ass off as a student, manual laborer, and husband/parent he manages to graduate Magna Cum Laude, at the top of his class from KSU in 1973. It must have surprised a lot of people he knew as a kid.

He applies all over for grad school and gets an offer to study at The Ohio State University with a full fellowship, including a stipend, and an opportunity to earn a doctoral degree in Experimental Psychology. During graduate school Gary is a mentee of Dr. Anthony Greenwald putting him at the forefront of social cognition, and focusing on attitudes and persuasion.  While Dr. Wells has produced some excellent research on persuasion, judgement and decision making, and attitudes (note: I’m saving a great story about his persuasion studies for the book), his strongest influence and largest contributions have emphasized the procedures and interactions with eye-witnesses to crimes. Okay, let’s focus on that.

Dr. Wells describes some of the things that got him  started on eye-witness research here:

For what it’s worth, I asked if he still has that line-up picture and it, unfortunately, was lost over the years. Say what you will about lawyers, but this guy had an important point. As has been discussed a bit on this site with the careers of Dan Schacter, Fergus Craik, Roddy Roediger, and Meredyth Daneman on this journey, there was an immense amount of memory research developing in the 1970’s and 1980’s. As a field we started to understand the processes that might lead to real and false memories, and the challenges of encoding and retrieving memories. We knew a lot, but Psychology also has a bit of a communication issue. We don’t always let people know about the meaningful work that has been completed, much less how that research applies to real world issues.  So, in comes this lawyer seeking to defend his client with tools from memory research and cognitive science, and leaves empty handed. Gary is intrigued. He had heard this talk from Elizabeth Loftus which would have got him thinking about false memories. Between the eye-opening promise of Loftus’ early research and the discussion of this putative false identification of the client of the lawyer from Cincinnati, was the start of Dr. Wells’ career dedication to a research program on eye-witnesses, police procedures, and applications.

There are a lot of developments and major findings on this topic since then in a career spanning more than 30 years. Here are a few anecdotes from Dr. Wells:


Over and over again, he’d see something or ask about something in the criminal procedures, and wonder about it. Is that really the best way? Is there a better method that might help the police get better at their aims? In his research he found a slight negative correlation between memory for central items relative to peripheral items. I.e., if you know that the door in the room was green, you probably weren’t paying a lot of attention to the face of the perpetrator. If someone was closely watching the perp, that person probably missed little details about the carpet, the door, etc — because that person was seeing a crime happen! Juries tend to think memory works by encoding everything or nothing, Wells and colleagues provide evidence that simply isn’t the case — more frequently witnesses focus on either the criminal or the scene, but not both.

His work and its application gained national prominence, in part, due to the partnership he established with Project Innocence.

Remember Ronald Cotton? Andre Hatchett? Johnny Tall Bear? These are people who were falsely imprisoned based on eye-witness testimony. They were innocent, and their innocence was later established — after they spent years in prison — using DNA evidence. Once Project Innocence began to successfully apply the new DNA science to these cases, it brought the fallibility of eye-witness testimony to the forefront of public concern and to police departments across the world. As Dr. Wells discussed with me, police hate it when they get the wrong guy. They hate the idea that the real perpetrator is still out there and committing crimes while they waste time and resources with the wrong suspect. Many police chiefs and even the Department of Justice with Attorney General Janet Reno, consulted with Dr. Wells and sought to integrate his recommendations, and those that he generated as the chairperson to the APA’s division 41 American Psychology of Law Society as they put out a white paper to codify the critical scientific ideas that would be most beneficial to law enforcement.

Dr. Wells has a lot of great stories spanning his career, his work with project innocence, and the many aspects of our legal system and practices. I can’t wait to share much more of this with you in the book!


Here are some of the wonderful publications from Dr. Wells:

Wells, G. L. (1978). Applied eyewitness-testimony research: System variables and estimator variablesJournal of Personality and Social Psychology36(12), 1546-1557.

Wells, G. L. (1984). The Psychology of Lineup IdentificationsJournal of Applied Social Psychology14(2), 89-103.

Wells, G. L. (1993). What do we know about eyewitness identification?. American Psychologist48(5), 553-571.

Wells, G. L., & Bradfield, A. L. (1998). ” Good, you identified the suspect”: Feedback to eyewitnesses distorts their reports of the witnessing experienceJournal of Applied Psychology83(3), 360-376.

Wells, G. L., Ferguson, T. J., & Lindsay, R. C. (1981). The tractability of eyewitness confidence and its implications for triers of factJournal of Applied Psychology66(6), 688-696.

Wells, G. L., & Gavanski, I. (1989). Mental simulation of causality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology56(2), 161-169.

Wells, G. L., Leippe, M. R., & Ostrom, T. M. (1979). Guidelines for empirically assessing the fairness of a lineup. Law and Human Behavior3(4), 285-293.

Wells, G. L., Lindsay, R. C., & Ferguson, T. J. (1979). Accuracy, confidence, and juror perceptions in eyewitness identificationJournal of Applied Psychology64(4), 440-448.

Wells, G. L., & Elizabeth Luus, C. A. (1990). Police lineups as experiments: Social methodology as a framework for properly conducted lineupsPersonality and Social Psychology Bulletin16(1), 106-117.

Wells, G. L., Malpass, R. S., Lindsay, R. C., Fisher, R. P., Turtle, J. W., & Fulero, S. M. (2000). From the lab to the police station: A successful application of eyewitness researchAmerican Psychologist55(6), 581-598.

Wells, G. L., Memon, A., & Penrod, S. D. (2006). Eyewitness evidence: Improving its probative value. Psychological Science in the Public Interest7(2), 45-75.

Wells, G. L., & Olson, E. A. (2003). Eyewitness testimony. Annual Review of Psychology54(1), 277-295.

Wells, G. L., & Quinlivan, D. S. (2009). Suggestive eyewitness identification procedures and the Supreme Court’s reliability test in light of eyewitness science: 30 years later. Law and Human Behavior33(1), 1-24.

Wells, G. L., & Petty, R. E. (1980). The effects of over head movements on persuasion: Compatibility and incompatibility of responsesBasic and Applied Social Psychology1(3), 219-230.

Wells, G. L., Small, M., Penrod, S., Malpass, R. S., Fulero, S. M., & Brimacombe, C. A. E. (1998). Eyewitness identification procedures: Recommendations for lineups and photospreads. Law and Human behavior22(6), 603-647.

Wells, G. L., Wilford, M. M., Smalarz, L., Wells, G., & Wilford, M. (2013). Forensic science testing: The forensic filler-control method for controlling contextual bias, estimating error rates, and calibrating analysts’ reportsJournal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition2(1), 53-55.

Wells, G. L., & Windschitl, P. D. (1999). Stimulus sampling and social psychological experimentationPersonality and Social Psychology Bulletin25(9), 1115-1125.

Olson, E. A., & Wells, G. L. (2012). The alibi‐generation effect: Alibi‐generation experience influences alibi evaluationLegal and Criminological Psychology17(1), 151-164.

Steblay, N. K., Dysart, J. E., & Wells, G. L. (2011). Seventy-two tests of the sequential lineup superiority effect: A meta-analysis and policy discussionPsychology, Public Policy, and Law17(1), 99-139.

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