Nalini Ambady (March 20, 1959 – October 28, 2013) was a social psychologist and a leading expert on nonverbal behavior and interpersonal perception. She was a Professor at Stanford University in the Department of Psychology.
A native of the state of Kerala, India, Ambady did her schooling at the Lawrence School, Lovedale, and joined college at the Lady Shri Ram College for Women, Delhi. Subsequently she moved to the United States for higher education, completing her M.A. in Psychology from The College of William and Mary, Virginia. She earned her Ph.D. in social psychology from Harvard University in 1991 under the guidance of Robert Rosenthal, with whom she researched thin slice judgments.
She held academic positions at Harvard University, Cambridge and the College of the Holy Cross, Massachusetts before being appointed as Professor in the Department of Psychology at Tufts University in 2004. She subsequently moved to Stanford University, California in 2011. She was the first Indian-American woman to teach psychology at Harvard, Tufts, and Stanford.
Ambady specialized in the study of intuition. Her research found that humans perceive nonverbal cues in response to novel people or situations, and that the information gleaned from an instant impression is often as powerful as information gleaned by getting to know a situation or person over a longer period of time. She and Robert Rosenthal coined the term “thin slices” to refer to such instantaneous non-verbal cues. Later, author Malcolm Gladwell referred extensively to Ambady’s work in his popular book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.
One of Ambady’s more well-known experiments asked students to watch silent 10-second videos of unfamiliar professors as they taught, and to rate the professors for likability, honesty, competence, and other qualities. The students’ responses correlated remarkably well with similar ratings by students who had spent a full semester getting to know the professors’ personalities and teaching qualities.
During Ambady’s appointment at Stanford, she founded SPARQ, the Center for Social Psychological Answers to Real-World Questions. The center’s main aim is to apply knowledge from the field of social psychology to the improvement of society.
Ambady was diagnosed with leukemia in May 2004 but recovered after treatment. In 2011, the cancer recurred in a more aggressive form. Her friends and family led an intensive worldwide campaign to find a compatible bone-marrow donor since they were unable to successfully locate any in existing bone-marrow registries. This was partly due to the low numbers of Indians on such registries worldwide and a limited base of donors numbering around 25,000 in the few Indian registries that exist. Her plight sparked a global effort to increase participation in bone marrow registries among South Asian ethnic groups. Though as many as thirteen potential donors were located over a period of time, many of them refused to go through with the transplant process after identification.
Ambady died on October 28, 2013 at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
Dr. Ambady was a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Psychological Association, and the Association for Psychological Science. She won the AAAS Prize for Behavioral Science Research in 1993. She also received the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers from President Bill Clinton.