2018 Best 40 Under 40 Professors: Anuj Shah, University of Chicago (Booth)

Anuj Shah

Associate Professor of Behavioral Science

University of Chicago, Booth School of Business

Everything is negotiable. That’s why it pays for business students to learn how to barter. At Booth, Anuj Shah is the master of teaching MBAs how to get theirs. From a pay raise to vendor terms, high stakes haggling is never pleasant. That’s why he takes a more “down-to-earth” approach, says Donnie Phillips (’13), one that relies heavily on memorable assignments, personal examples, and – of course – Shah’s trademark self-deprecating humor.

“In one exercise, he gave students a paper clip to see how well they could negotiate and ‘trade up’ for other items,” he reminisces. “Students engaged more than any other project and proudly brought back items as diverse as basketball jerseys, large potted plants, and customized beer glasses.”

Shah’s passions, however, are no laughing matter. Recently, he completed groundbreaking study with the University of Chicago Crime Lab that showed how intervention at various points could reduce crime rates and increase graduation rates among disadvantaged youth. It is this sense of empathy, coupled with a commitment to excellence, that has made Shah such a vital part of the Booth experience.

“Anuj clearly is a professor that puts attention and effort into every detail of his lesson; his comedic timing, examples in class, and graphics in materials are so well-selected and thoughtful,” writes Tracey Rubinoff (’18). “He shares sticky examples of his own life that are applicable to our lesson, ensuring his point is made and is one we will not forget.  He’s not afraid to be bold, vulnerable, and accepting of criticism.  He’s truly a world class professor and person.”

Age: 34

At current institution since what year? 2012

Education: Ph.D., Psychology, Princeton University, 2010

List of courses you currently teach: Negotiations

Twitter handle: N/A

TELL US ABOUT YOUR LIFE AS A PROFESSOR

“I knew I wanted to be a business school professor when…at our elementary school graduation, we were asked what we wanted to be when we grew up. For me, the answer was obvious: Pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles. When everyone in the room laughed, I knew I needed a different career. I always admired my teachers and professors, and having the chance to follow their example has been far better than spending my prime in the bottom of the AL East.

What are you currently researching and what is the most significant discovery you’ve made from it?

I try to use behavioral science, and cognitive psychology in particular, as a lens into social problems such as poverty, crime, and violence. In some recent work, done in collaboration with the University of Chicago Crime Lab, we studied programs for disadvantaged youth in Chicago that dramatically reduced arrests for violent crime and recidivism. And in another project, with ideas42, we designed interventions to help people remember to show up for their court dates in New York City (and to thus avoid having arrest warrants opened).

“If I weren’t a business school professor…Well, my second major was in English Literature, so what do you do with a B.A. in English?”

What do you think makes you stand out as a professor?

On the teaching side, I hope what comes through is simply how much I care. I enjoy getting to know my students, hearing their stories, and hopefully each week teaching them a few things they didn’t know.

“One word that describes my first time teaching”: TerrifiedButWaitThisIsFun (I believe it’s a German word)

If your teaching style/classroom experience had a theme song, what would it be?

I just hope it’s not elevator music.

As a b-school professor, what motivates you?

I’d like for at least some of my research to meaningfully inform public policy. In the classroom, I’d like for at least some of my lectures to meaningfully inform my students.

Here’s what I wish someone would’ve told me about being a business school professor:

Get to the seminar room early if you want one of the decent boxed lunch options.

Professor you most admire and why:

I’m lucky to have five such people: Sendhil Mullainathan, Jens Ludwig, Eldar Shafir, Danny Oppenheimer, and Len Green. They’ve all shaped the questions I ask, given me the tools to answer them, and have been incredible mentors, collaborators, and friends.

STUDENTS

What do you enjoy most about teaching business students?

They’re not a passive audience, they’re willing to have a conversation, and that conversation sometimes highlights some of my own blind spots.

What is most challenging?

Because the class is a conversation, I can’t be on autopilot, and need to be locked in, alert, and engaged.

Using just one word, describe your favorite type of student:

Curious

Using just one word, describe your least favorite type of student:

Absent

What is the most impressive thing one of your students has done?

As a negotiations exercise, I asked my students to get a reservation at a restaurant that doesn’t take reservations. Of course, I imagined them trying to get reservations at hipster spots with long waits. But one of my students instead got a reservation at Chick-fil-A. You see, she often took clients there for lunch, but they spent much of their meeting waiting in line during the lunch rush. So, she called Chick-fil-A and asked if she could make a reservation. They explained that they did not take reservations because that’s not how fast food restaurants work. So she offered to have them do a catering order at a later date if they agreed to reserve a table for her at lunch the following day. They agreed. She and her client walked in and did not wait in the long line. There was a hand-made “Reserved” sign waiting for them at a table. Someone came out from behind the counter and took their order tableside. She had somebody taking her order tableside at Chick-fil-A!

What is the least favorite thing one has done?

Each time a student thinks they are the first person to make a joke about negotiating their grade. It’s just so disappointing that they think they’re the first person to make that pun.

What does a student need to do to get an A in your class?

“It’s in the syllabus.”

“When it comes to grading, I think students would describe me as…Fair, I hope.”

“But I would describe myself as…Fair.”

Fill in the blank: “If my students can navigate conflict and negotiate more effectively, then I’ve done my job as their professor.”

LIFE OUTSIDE THE CLASSROOM

Fun fact about yourself: For the past 13 years, I’ve written a weekly email to my closest friends from college (including Willie Choi, who was previously on P&Q’s 40 under 40 list). So far, none have unsubscribed. I think.

What are your hobbies? Mostly, eating. I also enjoy home brewing beer, although haven’t been as consistent about it as I once was.

How will you spend your summer? In Chicago as much as possible. Summers in Chicago are the whole point of living in Chicago.

Favorite place to vacation: Silver Spring, Maryland

Favorite book: Right now, thanks to my 11-week-old daughter, it’s Time for a Hug by Phillis Gershator and Mim Green, illustrated by David Walker.

What is your favorite movie and/or television show and what is it about the film or program that you enjoy so much? The Shawshank Redemption is objectively the greatest movie of all time. And so, it’s my favorite.

Favorite type of music and/or favorite artist: Radiohead, The National, Katy Perry, Bruno Mars. There is no other music.

Bucket list item #1: To spend a few weeks going through Glacier National Park, Banff, and Jasper. I saw a mountain once, off in the distance. I’m intrigued. I’d like to see more.

THOUGHTS OF REFLECTION

What professional achievement are you most proud of?

I was part of an incredible team of researchers and program providers who studied youth anti-violence programs that reduced arrests and recidivism and increased schooling outcomes for disadvantaged youth in Chicago. It was a chance to try to use what we know from the psychology of decision-making to develop a theory that will hopefully make such interventions more scalable and translatable to other settings.

What is your most memorable moment as a professor?

I taught an evening class the night of Game 7 in the 2016 World Series. That section had an exceptional group of students in it, and nearly all of them actually showed up (I’m still not entirely sure why). It was the night of our biggest negotiation, and the night of the Cubs’ biggest game. I’m pretty sure it felt just like playing in the World Series.

If I had my way, the business school of the future would have much more of this…

I’m still new enough to this that I don’t think I can make any wise prescriptions for what business schools should look like in the future.

And much less of this… (See above)

In your opinion, companies and organizations today need to do a better job at doing what?

It’s been exciting to see how companies and organizations have become so open to using ideas from behavioral science to improve their policies and practices. But often, this means drawing on a fairly limited bag of tricks from the field. Ideally, we’d see greater experimentation with an expanded bag of tricks. Of course, this means we behavioral scientists need to expand our set of robust tools for behavior change. Ideally, we’ll develop this by collaborating with companies and orgs to do rigorous evaluations of these tools. I’m not the first person to say this. I’m just joining the chorus of far smarter people who said it first.

Looking ahead 10 years from now, describe what “success” would like for you

Having a portfolio of research that has generated actionable policy insights on a few different fronts.

What faculty and students say…

“Shah is an excellent educator and produces groundbreaking research. Recent research of Shah’s measures the impact of Chicago’s Becoming a Man (BAM) program offered by nonprofit Youth Guidance. Shah’s research found BAM reduces violence and arrests among program participants, while increasing high school graduation rates. At a time when Chicago is often in the news for violence, Shah’s research offers proof that interventions can work—and inspired Chicago policymakers and the Chicago Public Schools to scale BAM as part of the city’s violence reduction strategy. With support from Booth’s Rustandy Center for Social Sector Innovation, Shah is currently exploring the impact of pain reduction on wellbeing and productivity among low-income workers. These are just two examples of Shah’s groundbreaking research and its potential social impact.”

Salma Nassar
Associate Director, Research Initiatives
Rustandy Center for Social Sector Innovation
The University of Chicago
Booth School of Business

“Anuj Shah has done the impossible. He’s turned us into skilled negotiators, yes, but against greater odds he’s made Booth students funny. His lectures are like SNL Digital Shorts except with more celebrities. He got us to understand integrative issues by referencing Ryan Gosling, a gluten-free museum, and POGS all in one breath. We were habitually enthralled, not because 90% of his negotiation anecdotes involve a pro athlete or Nicholas Cage, but because Professor Shah is authentic and memorable. He allows us to learn from failure (both his and our own). He would begin each class asking about our personal negotiation stories (it’s okay to negotiate for questionably-old salmon if it teaches us a lesson), and ends each class with his own negotiation story where we “critique his life”. Because of Professor Shah, will never forget our reservation price, we will always know our BATNA, and we’ll grow the pie.”

Jenny Spiel
MBA Candidate | Class of 2018
The University of Chicago Booth School of Business

“I was in his Strategies and Processes of Negotiations class in Autumn 2017, and I absolutely loved his class. He truly cares about his students, and he is one of the most engaging, humble, and funny professors I’ve had – I literally laughed out loud during every single class. His class is very hands-on, and I’ve already applied the very tangible skills he taught to my everyday life. At the end of each class, he asked us to “critique his life,” during which time he was open about situations where he’s had to negotiate (e.g. when he and his wife bought a house), allowing us to openly discuss how to approach real-life negotiation scenarios. He’s a true gem and I learned so much in his class.”

Helen Bogen
MBA Candidate | Class of 2018

“I took Negotiations with Anuj and enjoyed every minute of the class. Within the first 3 hours of the quarter, he had memorized every students name in the class. He taught interesting- and very funny- lectures, which included detailed content and hilarious jokes that would keep everyone engaged throughout. He ended each class with personal negotiation stories from all walks of his life and let us critique his approaches honestly and with recommendations of what we would do differently based on our class learnings. Overall, he was truly an incredible professor and I wish I could take his class every quarter!”

Elizabeth Gannett
Chicago Booth
Class of 2018

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