2019 Best 40 Under 40 Professors: Luca Cian, University of Virginia (Darden)

Luca Cian

Assistant Professor of Marketing

University of Virginia Darden School of Business

Luca Cian first came to the United States from his native Italy as a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. Since then, Cian has established himself in the marketing department at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business where he teaches the core Marketing course to first-year MBAs and a Consumer Behavior elective to second-years. Cian’s skills and background align perfectly with what we aim to measure in this feature. He is in the top 10% of cited authors in the SSRN database and has won multiple teaching awards from graduating MBAs and the school, alike.

“Luca is an amazing teacher. He brings energy and enthusiasm to every class. He is incredibly passionate about Marketing and the success of his students,” one student told us. “In the first quarter when I took his Marketing class he scheduled individual meetings with all 67 of us to get to know us better. No other professor has done that. Luca is awesome.”

When Cian isn’t researching or teaching, he can be found embracing Italian racecar roots in driving fast on hilly roads, or working on his yard, or checking out a local brewery or winery.

Current Age: 37

At current institution since what year? 2015

Education: B.S./M.S., University of Trieste (Italy); Ph.D., University of Verona (Italy); Visiting Ph.D., University of Michigan; Postdoc, University of Michigan.

List of current MBA courses you currently teach: First Year Marketing Core, Consumer Behavior


I knew I wanted to be a business school professor when… I realized that I could combine psychology and marketing, allowing me to do work that has practical implications while still investigating how the human mind operates.

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

Most of my research is about how sensory perceptions (unconsciously) affect the way people think and make decisions.  One of my favorite research projects explores emotions and rationality. Emotions and rationality are abstract concepts, often difficult to define and grasp. Throughout the history of Western society, the head and the heart, concrete and identifiable elements, have been used as symbols of rationality and emotion. Together with my co-authors Aradhna Krishna and Norbert Schwarz, I showed that people understand the abstract concepts of rationality and emotion using knowledge of a more concrete concept — the vertical difference between the head and heart. In several studies, we showed a deep-seated conceptual metaphorical relationship linking rationality with “up” or “higher” and emotion with “down” or “lower.” We showed that the association between verticality and rationality/emotion affects how consumers perceive information and thereby has downstream consequences on attitudes and preferences. That is, people prefer emotional messages when they are lower (vs. higher) and rational messages when they are higher (vs. lower). Because all visual formats — from the printed page to screens on a television, computer, or smartphone — entail a vertical placement, this association has interesting managerial implications.

If I weren’t a business school professor… I would be an entrepreneur. But I could see myself being a consultant, a film critic, or a sports car dealer too.

When I was a kid, I wanted to become a painter (I love art, but I am not artistically gifted). As a mischievous teenager, I loved to work on computers, so the being a hacker was intriguing. When in college, I wanted to be a mix between a psychologist and cultural anthropologist traveling the world and writing books following the lead of my heroes, Carl Jung and Claude Lévi-Strauss. So, who knows…

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

I am very passionate about what I teach. When I was a student, I remember professors that appeared bored and unexcited about their topics, and I remember thinking, “If s/he is not excited about this topic, why should I be?” As such, I try to pour every drop of energy I have into my classes and my teaching. Also, I genuinely care about the students’ success.

One word that describes my first-time teaching: Cowabunga!

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

Sometimes you can give all your effort and energy, but things are not going to go the way you want. Colleagues, reviewers, and students may have a bad day, and it is does not necessarily have anything to do with you or your effort. Do not take everything personally. Be the best you can be, help others, and then enjoy the ride!

Professor you most admire and why:

While I cannot keep my answer to only one, those I admire most demonstrate respect on a human level and have changed the lives of many for the better. For example, Sara Cervai, Richard Bagozzi, and Aradhna Krishna believed in me when no one else did, and they totally changed my life. Aradhna, in particular, is not only incredibly brilliant, but also deeply cares about others and fought on my side to transform my career for the best. I admire professors who take time to help colleagues and shape the next generations of scholars, like my marketing colleagues at Darden (Tom Steenburgh, Raj Venkatesan, Ron Wilcox, and Paul Farris). They built a department that allows the junior faculty to blossom, thanks to their mentorship, meritocracy, friendship, and altruistic support. Then there are those I admire for their contributions to the field, such as Robert Cialdini, Norbert Schwarz, and Philip Zimbardo, together with the professors I mentioned before, who are also fantastic scholars.  Off-the-charts people, such as Rita Levi-Montalcini, act as an example of genius and courage. When I read this answer few months from now, I will be mad at myself for forgetting someone really important to me. So let’s consider this a long but only partial answer.


What do you enjoy most about teaching business students?

They are smart, prepared, independent, determined, and big dreamers.

What is most challenging?

They have strong personalities, which is a great quality but at times can be challenging when balancing a classroom discussion.

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

Using just one word, describe your least favorite type of student: The “whyamIinclasswhenIcouldbeonabeach” type of student (I know, I cheated)

When it comes to grading, I think students would describe me as… I hope they think I am fair.


What are your hobbies?

Driving (fast) on hilly roads, watching movies, working on my yard, spending time with friends at a nice brewery or winery.

How will you spend your summer?

Doing research and going to Italy to visit my mamma. Glamorous assistant professor life!

Favorite place(s) to vacation: A semi-desert island. Warm. White sand everywhere. This was the poster I had in my no-window room where I spent three years as a post-doc. I will find that island one day!

Favorite book(s):

Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Nietzsche, The Castle by Kafka, The Stranger by Camus, and One, No One and One Hundred Thousand by Pirandello. “Boring!” you might say. But these three books have a special place in my heart. I remember many evenings discussing Thus Spoke Zarathustra with my dad. Pirandello is just awesome – he was the first author that made me think and laugh at the same time. Camus reminds me of my college years, when I loved the kind of questions existentialists pose.  And Kafka is on my mind any time I deal with bureaucracy.

What is your favorite movie and/or television show and what is it about the film or program that you enjoy so much?

Oh – I adore movies.

I love Blade Runner (1982), Gattaca and most cyberpunk movies (i.e., movies that shows society with high technology and low social advancement – a situation that, unfortunately, is more reality than fiction).  And then I must admit – I am a big trekkie!

I also love all movies that make me think by posing original questions, like The Man from Earth and Waking Life— just brilliant.

There are then movies that I love for the esthetics, such as Cinema Paradiso and The Great Beauty.

And finally, as any good Italian, the answer to the best movie ever made can only be one — The Godfather.

Favorite type of music and/or favorite artist:

Fast-paced music – it has to be fast and powerful.


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

I would have a school specialized in both technology and psychology (leadership, consumer behavior, etc.). Also, a school able to deepen students’ strategical thinking, as Darden does. And to foster more nuanced decision-making, we must continue to push for more inclusive and diverse classrooms of students at the graduate business school level.

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

Combining technology and psychology.

Faculty and administrators say:

“Luca Cian is an amazing professor who truly cares about his students. Every day when we walk into the classroom, he pushes our thinking to truly understand all the material. His enthusiastic nature makes learning fun and exciting and therefore, one of my favorite classes at Darden. He is always available after class to discuss challenging topics or simply chat about life. The compassion he shows for his students makes him an exemplar professor and mentor. From his innovative research to his transformational leadership in the classroom, he is truly deserving of this award which is why I would like to nominate Luca Cian.”

“Luca is a phenomenal teacher who brings great energy and passion into his teaching. Every class is entertaining and even students not interested in marketing are drawn to his classes. His electives are always hard to get as students bid most of their bid points to be in his class. He is a terrific professor and deserves this award. His journey from a small village in Italy to teaching at Darden is truly remarkable and inspiring.”

“Luca is one of the best professors I have ever had! The energy and passion he brings to each class is contagious, and he has a way of making every student feel engaged, heard, and valued. Something else that really made Luca stand out – especially in the first (overwhelming!) few weeks of first year: he scheduled a 1:1 coffee meeting with all 67 students in our section. The purpose of these meetings was not to talk about Marketing, but rather to get to know each of us individually. Luca gives you the sense that he really cares about you as a person and as a student beyond his classroom. My section unfortunately only had Luca for our first quarter, but I really appreciated that he continued to stay in touch with us, drop in to say hello (he was often the only professor who would come to our section dinners!), etc. Luca is a wonderful professor and undoubtedly deserving of recognition!”


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