2016 Best 40 Under 40 Professors: Moran Cerf, Kellogg School of Management

Moran Cerf Northwestern

Moran Cerf

Assistant Professor of Business and Neuroscience

Kellogg School of Management and the LIJ Department of Neurosurgery

Half neuroscientist, half business professor. That’s what you get when you combine the study of neuroscience with organizational decision making. In other words, you get Moran Cerf.

A professor of neuroscience and business at Kellogg, Cerf also works at the university’s department of neurosurgery where he studies patients undergoing brain-surgery to examine behavior, emotion, and decision making.

At Kellogg, Professor Cerf’s study of the brain helps students in his Marketing Management course to understand the influences that impact marketing decision-making and using neuromarketing techniques to gain insights about consumer behavior. Outside the classroom, he is an editor and reviewer for several scholarly journals in both business and neuroscience and a consultant for companies that include Red Bull, The Hershey Company, and Tinder.

Among Professor Cerf’s other notable accomplishments: He is a screenwriting professor for the American Film Institute and winner of several national storytelling competitions.

Age: 38

At current institution since: 2013

Education: PhD, Neuroscience, Caltech, 2009; MA, Philosophy, Tel-Aviv University, 2001; BSc, Physics, Tel-Aviv University, 2000

Courses you currently teach: Marketing Management, Behavior, Business, and the Brain (‘Using the brain in Business’) an online MOOC

Professor you most admire: The two who made me go be a scientist: Richard Feynman whose biography I read on a wooden bench in Israel when I realized that there is  a way to do science while maintaining an impactful, exciting and artistic lifestyle. And Francis Crick who, in a short meeting, showed me how enchanting the pursuit of truth and meaning is, and paved a path for me to utilize my then non-academic skills to tackle  the world’s most important problems: consciousness, our psyche and what makes us human.

And, I guess also… Indiana Jones, who – as  a kid- made me realize that professors have this exciting life, full of adventures and aren’t necessarily confound to a desk and a white board. While I never jumped off a plane in my academic life, thus far, I still feel that my scientific pursuit is shaped by this feeling of daily excitement.

“I knew I wanted to be a business school professor when…I feel I am choosing it again every day. I am still grateful for the opportunity I was given to be one – given that my academic background is not in business (although I do have professional background in the field – having run a startup company in computer hacking 15 years ago). I guess knowing that I wanted to be a scientist was easy, since the interest in puzzles and the pursuit of absolute truths was always in my veins. And then. realizing that business school is the particular venue for it unfolded when I faced more and more evidence for the growing inequality and economic challenges in the country. I felt that this calls for voices that weren’t part of the creation of the current financial and economic system to get involved in it.

We see that the old ways of doing business are often failing and that understanding how people think, their biases, and their psychology helps fix those failures. Instead of teaching our students smarter accounting tricks to rig the taxation system, it seems necessary to bring people from outside the field who understand how our thinking shapes our behavior and how to help us make choices that would be more beneficial for us in the long term. Accordingly, I feel that we need a different way of thinking about management. One that bridges psychology, behavior, neuroscience and analytics to understand the needs of the individual. Rather than cater to their momentary desires and potential flaws (i.e. instead of exploiting people by pricing things at $6.99 and figuring that we can fool them into buying something they think is cheaper, we can create situations where it is not our weakness that make us do things, but rather our smarts and strengths). I truly think that business and economics govern the world we live in. And I wanted to speak, shape, study and understand the people who will later run these businesses. I believe that my student will soon dominate our economic systems, so I wanted to be there when they absorb knowledge and rethink their views about the world. (for some of them, it might be the last time they spend in a classroom. Surely for that long period of time). I feel it’s truly a calling.”

“If I weren’t a business-school professor…I’d be unemployed. I guess I’d try to be a community organizer or to run a grassroots movement dedicated to civil rights or social justice. Alternatively, one job that runs in our family (both my dad and my brother do it) which is fascinating to me is journalism. So this might be an option. And I guess I also have an affinity to the art world… so doing something in fine arts or even in digital art (say, a computer games designer, or animator) would match my talents.”

Most memorable moment as a professor: When I took my PhD thesis advisor, Professor Christof Koch, along with my PhD students to dinner. He came to town to be the keynote speaker in a big science conference’s, and we all had dinner together. It was the embodiment of what is beautiful about science: three generations of scholars getting together to discuss a project that my advisor started investigating nearly 30 years ago (when my students weren’t even born) and which they are now the torchbearers for.

What professional achievement are you most proud of? The next one. Years ago I read an interview that really influenced me. It was with a guy who won the most amount of money in the lottery (to that date; since then the amounts surpassed his win tenfold). He was asked many questions about his achievements in life (he had a classical Cinderella story where he had nothing before, was in a homeless shelter, and suddenly became this rich and successful person who also made many smart choices with his investments since). At the end of the interview he was asked: “What changed in your life since you won all this money?” and he answered: “I say the same things I said before. But now people listen”. For me, I feel I am advocating and thinking the same things I did before becoming a professor, but having this title makes people listen and care. So… my biggest achievement as a professor is – becoming one. It allows me to now communicate the science that I loved all the time, and the interesting learnings that my colleagues and I are fascinated by, daily, to an audience who now… also listens.

What do you enjoy most about being a business school professor? I feel that if we want to understand people’s psychology and behavior, then business research is among the best playgrounds to explore it. My research deals with real life aspects of psychology and behavior. And it seems that people behave more truthfully when money or high personal stakes are on the line (for better or worse). Actual business decisions seem to have a sobering effect on people behavior. Rather than theoretically telling me what you would do, when financial or high emotional consequences are on the line – we see the truth behind people’s behavior. It is arguably the most quantifiable way to see their motivations, their desires, and even their dark side (greed, and bad and unlawful behaviors). For example, people claim they are adventurous and risk-takers in surveys. Then when you ask them to ‘put money’ on a risky choice they end up being a lot safer than they claimed. Essentially, we tend to imagine ourselves as one thing, but then behave a lot differently when money, business, or emotions are on the line.

What do you enjoy least about being a business school professor? I really don’t like the notion that many business schools have that there are clear ‘right answers’ to complex business questions. I also don’t like the thinking that somehow business school professors hold this secret sauce to knowing something profound about the right way to do things. I feel that many times we look at the world and see a company (say, Apple or Über) succeeding and then tell their case/story as if it was a story of genius. As if they ‘deserved’ it. Whereas, in reality, there often is – at the same time – another company that did nearly the same thing and failed. History is always told by the winners. So we explain the story of the winners in hindsight as if it was clear and as if it is based on pure planning and smarts. I feel that luck, pedigree, connections, heritage, and help from social institutions plays a much bigger role than those companies and cases give credit for. And… if I had to zoom out and talk ‘big picture’ for a second, I’d say that I don’t like that in business schools you often need to take for granted beliefs that are ideologically debatable (say, that smarts alone begets success, or that social justice is orthogonal to to the bottom line rather than a starting point for it).

Fun fact about yourself: Tough one…I really don’t know. It is just…my life. I wouldn’t do things that I don’t think are fun… If you mean thing that are a-typical then here are a few: – I used to be a hacker for nearly a decade – breaking into financial and government institutions to test their security. – I used to do ballet for nearly a decade (since age 7). – I studied to be a clown and used to do street performances where I would ride a unicycle, juggle, and run circus acts. – I work best with an audiobook playing in the background when I write or think (I don’t necessarily pay attention to the content, but the fact that there’s content flowing by makes me think clearly and the occasional lapse of attention towards a book help me ‘think prose’). Hope any of those are ‘fun’.

Favorite book: I never remember my ‘favorites’ in anything. It feels too… terminal (as in, as soon as I commit to something I’ll remember another book that I may have liked more) so I am not sure I can answer this one easily. Right now I am reading the new book of Yuval Noah Harari: “History of tomorrow” and loving it. So that’s my momentary favorite book. Maybe also the “Oxford Dictionary”

Favorite movie: “Robocop”. Because he is robot, but also a cop. (in seriousness, it actually bears a personal meaning to me and my partner, which makes it significant).

Favorite type of music: Audiobooks…

Favorite television show: Well… Like any sane human being I love everything Aaron Sorkin, and accordingly would easily say: “The West Wing”. However, for pure vanity, I also have now another favorite: “Limitless”. Because I was a science consultant on it, and enjoy seeing the neuroscience ideas we discussed in the writers’ room unfold on national TV.

Favorite vacation spot: Home. Last year I spent less than 60 days at home, so when this actually happens it feels like a true vacation.

What are your hobbies? Hobbies?! Kids have hobbies! I have… life. I do love participating in story-telling competition (The Moth). I feel that the art or craft of telling a simple story that connects with people and grabs their attention for a window of time is elementary for humans throughout history, and even more so in our very rapid, hectic and frantic world. It is even more essential for professors who need to distill a complex idea into a tangible and clear piece of information. So knowing how to attach a story to an idea helps people remember it, feel it and then grasp it. (accordingly, I won the national grand-slam competition of the Moth multiple times…)

Twitter handle: Not my thing (I have the handle twtrdtcm and never posted anything, or follow anyone)

“If I had my way, the business school of the future would have…more civil service classes and focus on the role of business in shaping a better society. Equal amount of male/female students. An engineering program/department attached to it, so students would also learn complex analytics skills, programming skills and potentially neuroscience and other tools to understand consumers better. And potentially design classes. Since I feel that the importance of good design in business is only now starting to be understood by companies and it is, in my mind, critical to their success. Also… students would be required to potentially come back after some time, say ten years, for a routine ‘update’. No way to implement that, but it would be a dream.”

Students Say…

“Moran is the MOST dedicated professor I have had here. He loves what he does, loves the students, and goes out of his way for us. And he is a phenomenal presenter and lecturer. This kind of enthusiasm rubs off on us.”

“I hope Moran can enjoy the feeling of satisfaction knowing that everyone I spoke with (myself included) walked away from this class very grateful for having taken it with Moran; he will be a legendary Kellogg professor in no time!”

“Moran truly brings a different approach to teaching than what I’ve experience so far in other classes. I appreciate his willingness to break from the mold and be unique. His contributions to my learning at Kellogg will be something I carry with me through my career. His genuine passion and humor on the coldest evenings I’ve ever experienced here in Chicago made class a joy to attend each week. I hope there are more classes moving forward that are modeled after his in its departure from the conventional lecture method.”

“Professor Cerf is a rock star. He is the most interesting man in the world and really cares about all of his students. He went above and beyond in every measure.”

“The thing I love about Kellogg the most is Professor Cerf. Hands down. I don’t think that I’ve ever had a prof that genuinely cared about his/her students as much as Professor Cerf.”

“It is a rare to have a professor who is well versed in so many disciplines, but who is able to draw upon those experiences to teach a topic that generally is construed as being very light and non-substantive. Pair that with the fact that Professor Cerf is extremely engaging and enthusiastic, and you have a class where students are excited not just about the professor but the material as well.”

“Professor Cerf is the best professor at Kellogg. The best you can expect from your MBA class. Kellogg and the students are very fortunate to have him with us.”

“Definitely my most memorable professor.”

“Creative and effective teaching approach and presentation of marketing concepts. Current and cutting edge concepts. Professor is ahead of the curve.”

“Prof. Cerf is a truly interesting person and a dynamic and engaging presenter. Classes flew by, and I looked forward to coming. He also clearly demonstrated interest in getting to know students and caring for them, which were appreciated.”

“Professor Cerf is probably the most engaging storyteller of any professor I have ever had. I enjoyed every class we had from an experience perspective.”

“Professor Cerf is the best thing that happened in Kellogg. He is amazing.”

“Professor Cerf is my favorite professor in Kellogg so far. Ever since the first class, I have been recommending the class to other students.”

“Prof. Moran is an amazing professor! With such a unique background in neuroscience, he brought a creative and insight perspective. This is not the marketing class I signed up for…. it’s much better than anticipated!”

“Best class and best Prof ever.”

“I looked forward to class every single day. Never had done that before.”