NEW YORK — 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 at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. She was 54.
Her death, from leukemia, was announced by Stanford University, where she had taught since 2011. Before joining Stanford, Dr. Ambady taught at the College of the Holy Cross, Harvard University, and Tufts University.
In “Blink,” subtitled “The Power of Thinking Without Thinking,” Gladwell explored the psychology of intuition, snap judgments, and gut reactions. The book prominently features Dr. Ambady’s work, which centered on the cognitive processes underpinning intuition. Her findings are notable for upendingprejudices about the validity of first impressions.
To make snap judgments, Dr. Ambady found, people draw unconsciously on nonverbal cues, including facial expression and body language, what a poker player calls “tells,” which determine their initial response to people and situations.
In an article published in 1992 in the journal Psychological Bulletin, she and 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,” Dr. Ambady said in 2007.
The upshot, for good or ill, helps determine a welter of 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, Dr. 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 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.
Nalini Ambady was born in Kolkata, India. After receiving a bachelor’s degree from the University of Delhi, she earned a master’s in psychology from the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va. She earned a doctorate in social psychology from Harvard.