2018 Best 40 Under 40 Professors: Ed O’Brien, University of Chicago (Booth)

Ed O’Brien

Assistant Professor of Behavioral Science

University of Chicago, Booth School of Business

As a social psychologist, Ed O’Brien understands the value of repetition. That’s why he is constantly referring back to and reinforcing the key points, often wrapping them in new examples or contexts…understanding that time and competing priorities will eventually erode most learning. For O’Brien, structure and delivery are the means of making an impact with adult learners.

According to Elizabeth Austin, O’Brien changed her life, giving her a “powerful new lens” to view her work and her life. Even more, he set the teaching standard at Booth, one that made “subsequent classes disappointing” by comparison. “Ed is extraordinarily committed to presenting class material in a way that is engaging and memorable,” Austin adds. “Each week, he gave a smart, polished, cohesive lesson that connected with the previous week, placed that week’s material in the context of the class overall, and explained where we were heading – providing a “knowledge architecture” that dramatically improved comprehension and “stickiness.”

Indeed, O’Brien – already a renowned scholar – hopes his legacy will be to produce research “that can stand the test of time.” Chances are, his legacy will also be cemented by the many lives he has already enriched.

“Professor O’Brien had a profound and lasting impact on me and the way I view the world,” adds Stephen Suellentrop, a 2017 MBA graduate. “Not a day goes by that I do not reflect and use the lessons that he taught in his ‘Managing in Organisations’ class… In one class, he performed a group variant of the ‘implicit bias test’. Right there in the room, he showed the gender and racial biases our class had; it was a powerful moment that I will remember for the rest of my life.”

Age: 31

At current institution since what year? 2014

Education: Ph.D., Psychology, University of Michigan, 2014 (Go Blue!)

List of courses you currently teach: Managing in Organizations

Twitter handle: N/A

TELL US ABOUT YOUR LIFE AS A PROFESSOR

“I knew I wanted to be a business school professor when…I’ve loved psychology for as long as I can remember loving anything about school. As it turns out, there’s a whole lot of psychology (in particular social psychology) involved in the business world, from how we figure out what our boss really means to how we can persuade the board room of our big idea. In the past few years, business schools have become increasingly interested in hiring social psychologists to teach and tackle these ideas. As an entering doctoral student in social psychology in 2009, I was extremely lucky to be in the right place and the right time.”

What are you currently researching and what is the most significant discovery you’ve made from it? As a social psychologist, I study how everyday people think in everyday life, and in particular how people can come to think differently (sometimes mistakenly) depending on the situations they’re in. One big theme of some of my recent research is that people often misunderstand just how powerful situations will be, before they experience those situations. This has a host of consequences for judgment and behavior. In terms of well-being, for example, we often fail to realize the value remaining in already-experienced activities: after visiting Chicago once, we think we’ve seen it all and therefore end up paying a premium to visit a new city the next time. In reality, actually revisiting Chicago many times would feel much more exciting and “new” than we imagine beforehand. Another example comes from my research on learning: after we see someone else perform a skilled activity, from cooking to home repair, we overestimate how well we could perform it too. We fail to realize the many missed nuances and complexities involved once we actually jump in and try. In short: everyday life is far more interesting to actually live than how it plays out in our minds.

“If I weren’t a business school professor…I would play guitar in a rock band. Unfortunately, Ed O’Brien has already beat me to it (the name of the guitarist for Radiohead).”

What do you think makes you stand out as a professor? Students take lots of classes, spread out over lots of time. The fact is, most material will eventually be forgotten. I’m extremely aware of this fact and do my best to leave a few memorable nuggets. For example, on Day 1, I open my class with the “Three Pillars”: the three essential points I want all of my students to remember even if they forget everything else. The Three Pillars are three bullet points about how you can think about people just a little bit differently – informed by social psychological research – not just in the workplace but your partners, friends, family, and throughout all walks of life. I then recite these pillars all the time: week 2, week 3, all the way until the closing words of the course. It becomes something of a running joke, and also (I hope) something that really can stick.

One word that describes my first time teaching: Powerful.

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

Born to Run

As a b-school professor, what motivates you? It’s pretty amazing to hear about my students’ own experiences in the workplace. I teach a general management course, which means I get students from nearly every job you can think of. And in nearly all these jobs, I get to hear about social psychology live and in the wild: decisions that worked or didn’t work, HR issues, struggles to get ahead, and so on. It’s motivating to get to bring the material to life.

Here’s what I wish someone would’ve told me about being a business school professor: When you finish teaching each week, it feels like you’ve finished playing a football game. Flip-flops are your friend.

Professor you most admire and why: I wouldn’t be here without my graduate school advisors while I was at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Phoebe Ellsworth and Norbert Schwarz. I could rant and rave about their research, but I also learned so much from them about how to care about students. They led by behavior. Always keep the door open and remember that your words matter (whether you want them to or not).

STUDENTS

What do you enjoy most about teaching business students? The times when they laugh at my jokes (also, they can be pretty funny, too). We have a good time in the classroom! It’s a blast to teach people who come into the classroom with real life experience, ready and excited to share. I’m always blown away by how many students constantly WANT to get involved. Teaching undergrads can sometimes involve pulling teeth to get volunteers for in-class demos. MBAs create the problem of too many hands going up at once.

What is most challenging? I care deeply about getting students engaged and feeling immersed in the material. This means I try to bring a lot of energy each week: if I light a fire in the room, I tend to notice that they light one back. But, by definition, this can be exhausting. It’s especially challenging when I teach at nights. These are busy, tired, real-world managers who are doing their best to now get an MBA. They’re understandably burnt. Entering the classroom for my Friday night class (6pm-9pm) isn’t exactly jumping with energy before I walk in.

Using just one word, describe your favorite type of student. Empathetic.

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

What is the most impressive thing one of your students has done? I’m always impressed hearing about how students apply the material to their real ongoing work life, which I often hear from students who come up to me after each lecture. It ranges from small to big things, but it’s always exciting to hear. For example, I’ve heard from students who re-designed their incentive systems at work to give more experiential rewards (e.g., offering not just a lump sum of bonus money but also time off or a vacation package), and I’ve heard from students who re-designed their student group meetings (e.g., offering candy to an audience as they exit instead of when they enter the meeting) – all tips from course material, jumping right from the psychology laboratory to their workplace.

What is the least favorite thing one has done? It’s difficult when students spend class time peeking at phones, checking e-mail, and especially talking with neighbors. They’re all adults, so if that’s how they want to spend their time and money then so be it – but it pains me when this affects the student sitting next to them, who is also giving up time and money to be there but can’t help but notice the screens and conversations next door. Leave the room, fine; pass out, fine; but don’t ruin it for the people who have worked hard to make it to the seat next to you.

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

When it comes to grading, I think students would describe me as…Transparent.

But I would describe myself as…Transparent.

Fill in the blank: “If my students can appreciate the power of the situation, then I’ve done my job as their professor.”

LIFE OUTSIDE THE CLASSROOM

Fun fact about yourself: I was in the movie Ides of March. A movie exists with George Clooney, Ryan Gosling, and Ed O’Brien (actually me, not that Radiohead guy).

What are your hobbies? Guitar, good food, good beer, Oscar-viewing parties with friends

How will you spend your summer? Teaching! (I teach summers)

Favorite place to vacation: Los Angeles (my wife is a professor at the University of Southern California, and my favorite place is wherever my wife is)

Favorite book: Forty Stories by Donald Barthelme.

What is your favorite movie and/or television show and what is it about the film or program that you enjoy so much? I love all things comedy, from stand-up to SNL. Good stand-up comedians are essentially good social psychologists. As a social psychologist, I try to come up with research ideas that are true in most people’s daily lives—and good jokes often elicit the reaction “That’s so true!” Many of my research ideas have stemmed from hearing a joke that really landed with lots of people.

Favorite type of music and/or favorite artist: People who get on stage by themselves and play acoustic guitar, because then I can pretend it’s me. I listen to Mason Jennings, Josh Ritter, and Ingrid Michaelson a lot.

Bucket list item #1: Eliminate the “distance” from “distance marriage.”

THOUGHTS OF REFLECTION

What professional achievement are you most proud of? I was so thrilled to be able to join the faculty at Chicago Booth right out of graduate school. The job market is tough. I was very lucky.

What is your most memorable moment as a professor? As a doctoral student, it was extremely rewarding to get published. Now as a professor, it’s extremely rewarding to help my own students get published. I have a few co-authored papers with undergraduates and doctoral students so far, and each time the moment the paper got accepted felt really special.

“If I had my way, the business school of the future would have much more of this…Figuring out how to integrate technology into the learning environment. There’s no actual stopping phones and laptops at this point, so maybe we can think differently about them and try to make them part of lecture in some way.”

“And much less of this…Phones and laptops.”

In your opinion, companies and organizations today need to do a better job at doing what? Please explain. Stop using pure intuition to make important decisions. Much of business life is built on what “sounds right” or “feels right,” often among just a handful of executives. It would be better to first study up on past experiments. Better yet, conduct your own experiments. Make decisions based on more data than intuition.

Looking ahead 10 years from now, describe what “success” would like for you. Having done research that can stand the test of time.

Students Say…

“I recently took “Managing in Organizations” taught by Professor O’Brien and to this day, I keep a binder of information from this class with me at work. Professor O’Brien not only brought a plethora of wisdom to the classroom, but also a positive energy that kept classroom discussions engaging and memorable. Professor O’Brien provides students with both theory and practical examples to learn from each week. At the end of our quarter, the professor summarized our lessons with key takeaways document on how to be an effective manager in the workplace. As a newly minted manager, I use these takeaways daily to manage my team and the outcomes have been amazing! Professors like Ed O’Brien are hard to come by – they are passionate for teaching and inspire us to be better leaders in this world.”
Marzena (Marcy) Medlak | MBA Candidate

“Professor O’Brien does a fantastic job of bringing energy to the class. The class session I attended was from 6pm to 9pm and definitely warranted a slow class and glazed over eyes. However, the exact opposite happened. Sometimes I forgot to breathe. The class is non-stop action. Don’t get me wrong, this was not just action from Professor O’Brien, but full class discussion. The class discussion based on the guidance and material from O’Brien has fundamentally changed the way I think about the world – who knew that as managers we should be wary of actor/observer bias! I’m nominating him because he got me to pay attention, and now I’m a better manager.”
Adam Frederico
President, ETA club
MBA Candidate | Class of 2018

“I knew Ed O’Brien would be a memorable professor when, on the first day of class, he lined up all of students in Managing in Organizations and instructed us to shout and throw paper balls at a classmate as she struggled to do a string of arithmetic problems in her head. Ed was illustrating the power of the situation as a driver of performance. His engaging course pushed past the tired nostrums about how to “be the boss” and challenged us to apply principles of social psychology to our workplaces. His reminded us that we all sometimes ascribe others’ shortcomings (so obvious to us!) entirely to their character and not to their environment, and thereby miss opportunities to enhance the performance of the entire enterprise. Building on this idea, Ed’s course was empowering from a professional standpoint and intellectually substantial from an academic one.”
Peter Morrissey

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