MIT Sloan Executive Education innovation@work Blog

Can technology improve your negotiation skills? In Jared Curhan’s classroom, the answer is yes.

If you are at all familiar with MIT, then you likely know our motto is Mens et Manus—mind and hand. The Executive Education programs at MIT Sloan stay true to this motto as we pursue and promote practical solutions to real problems. The course work for each of our programs is a balance of theory and application, lectures and hands-on activities, case studies and simulations. In other words, when technology can play a role in the classroom, our faculty welcome it. And in many cases, our professors are the driving force behind these innovations in the classroom.

MIT Associate Professor Jared Curhan was recently presented with a 2019 Teaching with Digital Technology Award from MIT. This student-nominated award recognizes faculty and instructors who have used digital technology to improve teaching and learning for MIT students. Student nominations praised Curhan’s use of an online platform and interactive application to facilitate and enhance experiential learning in the classroom.

The awards are co-sponsored by MIT Open Learning and the Office of the Vice Chancellor. This year, four winners were selected from a pool of 159 nominations by a judging committee comprising Dean Krishna Rajagopal, Vice Chancellor Ian Waitz, and seven undergraduate and graduate students. Curhan, who teaches the Executive Education program Negotiation for Executives, is the first winner from the Sloan School for this relatively new award.


Subjective value gets technical

Curhan specializes in the psychology of negotiation and conflict resolution. As part of this work, he has pioneered a social psychological approach to the study of “subjective value” in negotiation—the idea that negotiation is not just about the economic outcome that you achieve, but also how you feel and how you make your counterpart feel when you negotiate.

“Those feelings have been historically treated as bias or noise, when in fact we’re finding they can be highly predictive of future consequences for the negotiators,” explains Curhan. “Subjective value had never been measured scientifically before. We’re measuring these outcomes and using the measurements to predict future consequences.”

In Curhan’s Executive Education program, participants learn to prioritize multiple issues to reach the most beneficial resolution and to optimize both the economic and subjective value of negotiations. The digital technologies in Curhan’s programs provide participants with feedback on the impressions they’re making on their negotiation counterparts. The technology is closely connected to and powered by Curhan’s research on subjective value, and the merger of the two facilitates extraordinary teaching moments in the classroom.

“The synergy that happens when research and teaching combines is important—I have always believed that very strongly that they should benefit each other,” says Curhan. “Now, with the technology we’ve introduced, we’re maximizing the learning in the classroom while simultaneously adding to and enriching research. It’s an ideal loop.”

Previously, Curhan followed a conventional model when teaching negotiation: participants conduct a negotiation, they report their outcomes on paper, that information gets added into an Excel sheet, and the results are analyzed and delivered back to participants a week later. This was working fine, until he began teaching his Executive Education program, which is a short, immersive course that would require the analyses of often-complex negotiation results to be executed in a matter of minutes, not days.

“While the calculations aren’t complicated, they require significant manipulation of data. Without a tool to capture subjective value automatically, it’s extremely time consuming to aggregate feedback for each participant and their individual counterparts,” says Curhan.

To that point, Curhan and his colleagues had been developing algorithms that would enable real time data analysis. But they were not alone in their efforts. MIT Sloan MBA Niraj Kumar had attended leadership training for vice presidents while working for Goldman Sachs. During his course, he realized just how much value could be added to negotiation teaching with some smart technological enhancements. He founded a company, iDecisionGames, to do just that, and introduced it to his alma mater.

“Niraj saw that, in negotiation classes like mine, instructors were constantly trying to find ways to graph results in class,” says Curhan. “So, he started a company to do that. We stopped using our home-grown version and piloted his comprehensive, web-based platform in our classes. Since then we’ve become friends, and we co-create things together. If I have a new way to display data, Niraj integrates it into the system. The software is now available for other universities, and our role-play customizations now benefit other users of the platform.” In fact, 14 of the top 20 business schools currently use iDecisionGames.

Now, with real-time scoring and instantaneous, graphical representations of negotiation exercise results, participants of Curhan’s Executive Education programs benefit from live analysis of their results, and they can see how their reactions and responses compare to those of their peers.

Go ahead and flinch

Curhan’s research on subjective value also explores the effect of factors such as facial expressions on negotiation outcomes. Another innovation, this time born in the MIT Media Lab, helps Curhan and his colleagues measure facial expressions that could have an influence on negotiation.

“Sometimes when we have people negotiate in the classroom or as part of our research, we’ll have them do so via video chat,” says Curhan. “With their consent, we record their negotiation. The Affectiva algorithm, started here in the lab of Roslyn Packer, gives us a way to understand the relationship between facial expression and performance in negotiation.”

For example, take the simple raise of an eyebrow. In the context of a negotiation, this eyebrow raise is known as a “flinch” and, intentionally or accidently, serves to signal to the other side that they have gone too far.

“A flinch can be beneficial, and it’s an indication of a particular strategy. Affectiva allows us to measure this, which is immensely useful for our research. In the classroom, this tool enables participants to see the effect of such a gesture, and as a result they are less likely to miss an opportunity to flinch in their next negotiation in the real world. It’s impactful.”

Curhan’s use of Affectiva is aided by yet a third innovation coming out of MIT, this time by a former Executive Education participant, Peter Harsbeck. iMotions is an emotion recognition software that seamlessly integrates multiple biosensor hardware all in one place. “It’s a like a clearing house for Affectiva-type software that tracks all kinds physiology while during an interaction,” explains Curhan. “It allows us to use Affectiva in a user-friendly way and collects and integrates the data.”

As a result of this award, Curhan has become even more aware of his use of digital technology in the classroom.

“We have such unique access to cutting-edge technology here at MIT. It’s exciting to use it to enhance both our research and the students’ experience in our programs.”

Learn more about Jared Curhan’s Executive Education program, Negotiation for Executives.

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