Thin Slice Judgements & Nonverbal Communication


December 4, 2015. Thin Slice Judgements & Nonverbal Communication
Long-lasting Impact of First Impressions

The importance of nonverbal behaviour and communication for presenters and people generally in terms of how you are perceived—has become increasingly recognized—not the least due to scientific research evidencing its importance.

One of the leading pioneers of research on nonverbal communication was Nalini Ambady, Stanford psychology professor and a distinguished social psychologist. She also taught at Harvard for many years before joining Stanford in 2011.

The initial landmark study on nonverbal behaviour that laid the foundation for her career-long work in this field was conducted in 1993 and published in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 64, No.3). The full study can be downloaded here.

The study recorded college professors delivering a lecture—and then asked people who had never seen the professors previously to assess and rate their teaching effectiveness. They were only shown brief silent video clips (i.e. no sound) of under 30 seconds of the professors lecturing—then asked to rate their teaching effectiveness on a scale from 1 (lowest)  to 9 (highest).

The ratings were subsequently compared to the end-of-semester assessments by the actual students of the professors. Rather unexpectedly, the scores from the independent raters were aligned with the assessments of the students who had spent an entire semester with the respective professors.

In additional studies using shorter silent video clips, down to 10, 6 and even 2 seconds, the results were similar,  and were further backed up by many other studies in subsequent years both by Ambady and other researchers.

Ambady and her colleagues’ research validated the power of first impressions. It showed that people make very quick judgements the first time they meet or see someone—known as ‘thin slice judgements’—which are surprisingly accurate and which can influence people’s long-term impressions of others.

Over the years Ambady and her colleagues did a number of follow-up studies in this field, partly summarized in the book ‘First Impressions’ (2008), published by The Guilford Press.

151204 N Ambady First Impressions

The studies of first impressions have a number of implications, not only for presenters and speakers—but also for other situations, such as who you hire for a job, who you decide to sit next to on the train, and the CEO’s impact and influence on his managers and employees.

Sadly, Professor Ambady passed away prematurely in 2013, at the age of 54, due to leukemia—and after a year-long, but unsuccessful effort to find a matching bone marrow donor.

Trond Varlid

This article first appeared in the EMC Quest newsletter series.