Nalini Ambady, a social psychologist whose research on the surprising accuracy of first impressions was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in “Blink,” his best-selling nonfiction book of 2005, died on Oct. 28 in Boston. She was 54.
Her death, from leukemia, was announced by Stanford University, where she had taught since 2011.
In “Blink,” subtitled “The Power of Thinking Without Thinking,” Mr. Gladwell explored the psychology of intuition, snap judgments and gut reactions. The book prominently features Professor Ambady’s work, which centered on the cognitive processes underpinning intuition. Her findings are notable for upending long-held prejudices about the validity of first impressions.
To make snap judgments, Professor Ambady found, people draw unconsciously on a series of nonverbal cues, including facial expression and body language — things a poker player might call “tells” — which determine their initial response to people and situations.
In an article published in 1992 in the journal Psychological Bulletin, she and the psychologist Robert Rosenthal coined the term “thin slices” to describe these nonverbal snapshots. Significantly, they found that information gleaned from thin slices resembles information garnered from long observation to a far greater degree than supposed.
“In 40 milliseconds, people can accurately judge what we are saying with our expression,” Professor Ambady told The New York Times in 2007.
The upshot, for good or ill, helps determine a welter of daily social choices, including whom one sits next to on the bus and whom one hires for a job.
In a seminal experiment they reported in a 1993 article, Professors Ambady and Rosenthal had students view soundless 10-second videos of professors teaching. The students were asked to rate each professor, none of whom they knew, for qualities including honesty, likability, competence and professionalism.
When their responses were compared with evaluations from students who had studied with those professors for an entire semester, they correlated to a striking degree. The article, published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, reported that the correlation held even when the videos were trimmed to only two seconds.
The full-text of the "thin slices" college professor ratings article can be found here.
This Psychology Today article refers to a study by Ambady and Rule that showed that college undergraduates can differentiate the faces of Mormons from non-Mormons with 60% accuracy (chance = 50%). There's also interesting stuff about gaydar, evolved mechanisms for spotting criminals, etc.