November 2005, Issue 5

Interpersonal Perception and Communication

Nalini Ambady, PhD, recently joined the Department of Psychology and now leads the Interpersonal Perception and Communication Laboratory. Her background includes a PhD in social psychology from Harvard University, postdoctoral work at Harvard, and faculty appointments at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. and at Harvard. Her research group is defining how our perceptions of ourselves and of others affect our actions. The researchers look at perception and communication from multiple angles, including the sociocultural, physiological, and neurological dimensions.

The influence of social identity and sociocultural stereotypes on behavior and performance is revealed by one of Ambady’s projects involving Asian women and math performance, looking at both positive (Asians are good at math) and negative (women are not good at math) stereotyping. Ambady’s group found that when researchers reminded Asian women subjects of their ethnicity, they performed better on math tests; when researchers reminded the women of their gender, they performed worse. The reminder for ethnicity might be a casual question, such as “What part of Asia do you come from?” The reminder for gender might be “Are there other women in your family?” Ambady refers to this reminding process as priming because it prepares the subjects for a particular purpose. The results of this study suggest that sociocultural stereotypes affected the subjects’ performance on the math tests more so than perceived differences in biology.

“I think it’s important to know how powerful these sociocultural stereotypes are,” says Ambady. “Maybe we’ll try to look at ways to inoculate people against them, or to get people to use them productively when they’re positive.” The research group did another study where they inoculated the Asian women by having them think about their individuality. “When we had them think about themselves as individuals before they took the test, although we primed them with gender, they did better. So there might be different strategies that people could use,” says Ambady.

Ambady is also interested in how accurately people can make judgments from “thin slices,” or very brief observations, of behavior. “That work has shown that people are quite accurate under certain conditions, and it’s those conditions that we’re exploring now,” says Ambady. “Who are more accurate judges? What are the circumstances under which people are accurate? What are the cues that people pay attention to?”

To investigate the effects of so-called thin slices of behavior, researchers might ask subjects to watch short video clips of doctors talking to patients, teachers talking to students, or managers talking to subordinates. The subjects would then make certain judgments about the people in the videos, which the researchers would analyze in conjunction with multiple subject and video variables. “We’re beginning to do MRI [magnetic resonance imaging] and fMRI [functional MRI] to see whether the cognitive strategies people use when making judgments have neural correlates,” says Ambady. “I’m interested in taking the work in that direction.”

“We’re also very interested in how people in different cultures and ethnic groups understand each other’s emotions and understand each other’s behaviors,” says Ambady. One analysis found that happiness and anger were recognized accurately regardless of culture or ethnicity, an indication that these emotions serve as important social signals across cultures. Ambady’s group is also investigating the many mixed messages people send to one another, especially people of different cultures. As the world becomes more integrated, Ambady and other researchers believe that it is increasingly important to understand how others might misperceive one’s behavior.

Ambady’s research group is beginning collaborations with Carl Fulwiler, a psychiatrist at Lemuel Shattuck Hospital, a Tufts affiliate. They will be looking at the processing of emotional cues, particularly in groups of psychopaths or people who have conduct disorders. Ambady would like to find a collaborator in neuroscience to investigate biological factors of social behaviors. She is also planning to start collaborations with the Tufts University Center for Children.

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