2015 Best 40 Under 40 Professors: Adam Alter, Stern School

Adam Alter

Associate Professor of Marketing (with affiliated appointment in the NYU psychology department)

NYU Stern School of Business


Adam Alter

Why, oh, why, do people do what they do? Ask Adam Alter. The NYU Stern School professor has carved out a high-profile business school niche for himself, studying human behavior. Alter can tell you why a husband just turned 29, or 39, or 40 may be hiding motel receipts from his wife. Alter can tell you why a company called Hillard would likely perform better in the stock market than one called Sprosprek. Alter can tell you why lottery winners aren’t that much happier than victims of catastrophic injuries. Holding a PhD in social psychology, Alter has been published widely in the academic and popular press, and wrote the best-selling book Drunk Tank Pink: And Other Unexpected Forces That Shape How We Think, Feel, and Behave. Alter provides Stern students with valuable insights into one of the most important skills in business: understanding what makes people tick.

Age: 34

At current institution since: 2009

Education: PhD in social psychology from Princeton University, 2009

Courses currently teaching: Introduction to marketing and a Ph.D. seminar, Behavioral Applications in Marketing

Professor you most admire: Professors Bill von Hippel and Joe Forgas, who co-taught my social psychology class at the University of New South Wales and advised my undergrad honors thesis. They have very different teaching and mentoring styles, but both sparked an interest in academia and teaching that continues to shape my life as a professor.

“I knew I wanted to be a b-school professor when” the research questions I was asking naturally combined the psychology of human judgment and decision making with business problems, like how a charitable organization might attract donations.

“If I weren’t a b-school professor…” I’d do similar research and teach similar courses in a psychology department.

Most memorable moment in the classroom or in general as a professor: When a charitable organization, DonorsChoose.org, tripled their donations by adapting an intervention I’d suggested in my book (matching potential donors with recipients who share their surnames).

What professional achievement are you most proud of? Writing my first book, and beginning to work on a new one.

What do you enjoy most about teaching? When a discussion takes off and you stray from your teaching plan—and then incorporate that tangent into how you teach the same class next time.

What do you enjoy least? Teaching the essential but dry portions of a course that are almost impossible to dress up with interesting anecdotes and case studies.

Fun fact about yourself: I’m colorblind, but write extensively about how color shapes decision-making.

Favorite book: Philip Roth’s Goodbye Columbus

Favorite movie: Being John Malkovich

Favorite type of music: Alternative and indie rock

Favorite television show: The Wire

Favorite vacation spot: The Sunshine Coast in the Australian state of Queensland

What are your hobbies? Running

Twitter handle: @adamleealter

“If I had my way, the business school of the future would…” be more diverse, both in terms of the backgrounds of its professors, and in terms of the disciplines (psychology, sociology, anthropology, etc.) that are represented in mainstream business schools.

Students say…

Professor Alter is one of the best teachers I have ever had. He is incredibly clear, precise, and efficient and has a lovely sense of humor and way of sustaining our interest with interesting outside exhibits and engaging our class in a conversation. I cannot praise him highly enough.

– from student survey

Great instructor, one of the best I’ve ever had. Class was interactive enough to keep it very interesting, but the professor also taught very well. The psychological focus was very applicable to marketing and was insightful. This class took a different spin on a business class. I enjoyed this class very much.

– from student survey

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