Psychology and Law: An Empirical Perspective

By Neil Brewer; Kipling D. Williams | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FOURTEEN
Helping Experimental
Psychology Affect Legal Policy

GARY L. WELLS

Any scientific psychologist who has interacted extensively with police, lawyers, or trial judges has learned that scientific psychology and the legal system are very different beasts. The differences run much deeper than mere language and instead represent different types of thinking—a clash of cultures. This clash is particularly apparent when psychologists attempt to use research findings to affect legal policies and practices. In order for scientific psychologists to work effectively in applying psychological science to the legal system, they will need to develop a better understanding of the concept of policy and the contingencies that exist for policymakers.

Much of what I have to say in this chapter might seem obvious. For example, I describe how, in order to affect legal policies, you have to know who the policymakers are, you have to know something about how they think, and you have to overcome their preconceptions of social scientists and social science. As obvious as these points might seem, however, I have been surprised at how little thought and appreciation some scientific psychologists seem to have given to these matters. The training and reward contingencies within scientific psychology are poor preparation for the challenges of applying psychological science to the reform of legal practices and policies.

The examples that I use in this chapter are derived from my experience in trying to reform eyewitness lineup policies and procedures in the United States. The problem of trying to reform lineup policies in this country is an enormous one. Eyewitness identification procedures in the United States are not controlled by any central authority; instead, they are under local control, usually at the level of the individual law enforcement agency. There are over 19,000 independent law enforcement agencies in the United States and almost

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