Nalini Ambady, a Stanford professor of psychology, died Oct. 28 after a long battle with leukemia. Her passing followed a yearlong, worldwide effort by family, friends and students to find a bone marrow donor match. She was 54.
A distinguished social psychologist, Ambady was well known for her research showing that people can form accurate first impressions about others based only on seconds-long observations of their nonverbal behavior.
“Thin slices,” as these quick impressions are known, are now a staple of social science textbooks, and were popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his 2005 bestselling book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.
Ambady was born in Calcutta, India, and earned her bachelor’s degree at Delhi University. She came to the United States for her master’s degree in psychology, from the College of William and Mary, and later received her PhD in social psychology from Harvard. While at Harvard, she met her future husband, Raj Marphatia, who was studying at Harvard Law School.
After earning her PhD in 1991, she quickly joined the ranks of academia by accepting a position as an assistant professor at the College of the Holy Cross; she would go on to become an associate professor at Harvard and a professor at Tufts University. Ambady joined the Stanford faculty in 2011, becoming the first person of Indian origin to teach in Stanford’s Department of Psychology.
The importance of nonverbal communication
Ambady’s work on thin slices was fueled by her passion for nonverbal behavior. She argued that nonverbal behavior is important because it is a quick, efficient and relatively effortless way of obtaining information about others. At birth, humans respond to and produce nonverbal cues and nonverbal behavior that can serve as a primary mechanism of socialization across the lifespan. As she put it, “Nonverbal behavior offers a means of adapting to the social world.”
She put these concepts to the test in one of her first publications, in 1993. She created 30-second, silent video clips of college professors delivering a lecture and asked people who had never seen the professors before to assess their teaching effectiveness. Remarkably, the scores from independent raters fell in line with those of students who had actually spent an entire semester in the professor’s class. The results held even when she shortened the clip to 10, 6 and 2 seconds.
The work demonstrated that perceptual judgments made on the basis of very brief observations of nonverbal behavior can be surprisingly accurate and can influence a person’s long-term impressions. The findings challenged established wisdom that intuitive reasoning is typically wrong and became a basis for the growing appreciation of the usefulness of nonconscious or “fast” thinking.
Ambady believed that even without conscious awareness, initial evaluative impressions can influence whom we sit next to in a subway, whom we hire for a job and, perhaps, even whom we marry. Her follow-up studies showed that similar snap evaluations can accurately predict a person’s sexual orientation or political affiliation or a CEO’s company profits.
In 1999, she received the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers from President Bill Clinton in recognition of this work. In February, she will be posthumously awarded the prestigious Carol and Ed Diener Award in Social Psychology, a recognition give by the Society for Personality and Social Psychology to scholars whose work has added substantially to the body of knowledge of the field.
A generous mentor and colleague
As a researcher, Ambady had a reputation for being collaborative and encouraging a very collegial lab space.
“Nalini had incredible energy, a very positive spirit,” said Hazel Markus, a professor of psychology. “She was brilliant and held herself and others to very high standards. She loved social psychology so much that people were very attracted to working with her.”
Ambady made her students and research assistants feel as though they were an extension of her family. When a first-generation college student from a low-income family was having difficulties getting to campus, Ambady took her to buy a bike. She bought a textbook for a struggling student who couldn’t afford it. And when she learned that some of her lab members either lived too far away or couldn’t afford to fly home for Thanksgiving, she invited them to dinner at her house.
She took immense pride in her students, said Marphatia, her husband, and was thrilled to see them rise to tenured professorships throughout academia. When her leukemia returned last November, she stayed deeply involved with her students’ work. She met with students at home and in the hospital while she was receiving treatment, and insisted on helping researchers with their grant proposals.
“Even though she was sick, she had this tremendous focus toward others,” said Brent Hughes, a postdoctoral scholar in Ambady’s lab. “She would stay on top of us in a really deeply caring way to make sure that we had everything we needed to do well.”
Upon coming to Stanford, one of her priorities was establishing a research center called SPARQ, designed to bring social psychological answers to real-world questions.
“She was the galvanizing force behind SPARQ,” said Jennifer Eberhardt, associate professor of psychology. “We now have a clinic which pairs practitioners with researchers and an online solutions catalog which describes effective interventions for a variety of social and environmental problems. This all happened within a year of Nalini coming to Stanford, and she continued to push hard on it until days before the end of her life.”
“She said, ‘Let’s take our academic research and findings and see if we can apply it to make changes in the real world,'” said Marphatia. “SPARQ is one thing that she was really looking forward to working on with her colleagues, and it is particularly disappointing that she won’t have a chance to work on that.
“It was the joy of her life to be at Stanford,” he said. “She thought it is such a wonderful environment to do research, with people inspiring each other and collaborating. It brought out the best of her professional abilities.”
A lasting legacy
One of the first projects that SPARQ-affiliated scientists will engage on will be done with Ambady in mind: A “Be the Match” initiative will aim to develop actionable ways to increase participation in bone marrow donor programs.
Ambady was originally diagnosed with leukemia in 2004, but treatment drove the disease into remission. When it returned last November, doctors told her that she needed a bone marrow transplant. Unfortunately, South Asians – and minorities in general – are severely underrepresented in bone marrow donor registries in the United States.
Students and friends began fundraising drives, including Nalini Needs You, to purchase and distribute the cheek swab kits used to identify potential donor matches, both in the United States and near her birthplace in India, where doctors believed there might be a better chance of locating a genetic match.
These efforts identified previously unregistered matches for seven other people in desperate need of a bone marrow transplant, for which Ambady was exceptionally pleased. Of the roughly dozen people who were potential matches for Ambady, however, half turned out to be incompatible or only superficial matches.
The others chose not to donate, a result that is common in bone marrow transplant cases. There are many reasons people ultimately decide not to donate, including cultural taboos or fears of pain or inconvenience. (Donating bone marrow is only slightly more complex than donating blood, though it requires multiple visits.) Some people’s contact information simply falls out of the system, especially the case with college-age donors who frequently change addresses.
Eberhardt and Markus said that SPARQ will partner with bone marrow registries to develop strategies for enrolling more people, and especially minorities, to participate in cheek swab tests, and also to encourage people to actually donate later on when they are identified as a match.
Ambady is survived by her husband, Raj Marphatia, and two daughters: Maya, who will enroll at Stanford next fall, and Leena, a sophomore at Castilleja School in Palo Alto.
Details of a memorial have yet to be finalized. Donations can be made to the Nalini Ambady Memorial Fund, care of the Department of Psychology, Jordan Hall, Building 420, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305. Make checks payable to Stanford University.