Q: I want to be “cool” but it’s such an abstract concept. How am I supposed to be cool if I don’t know what it even means? Has science shed some light on what it actually means to be cool?
A: Yes, there is some research behind what people actually mean when they think someone is cool.
A lot of people use the word cool, spend money to try to look cool, and work hard to be around people who are cool. But what does cool actually mean?
Dictionaries have their own definition – but most people probably didn’t look at the dictionary to figure out what they mean by using that word.
A group of researchers at a number of universities sought to examine the psychological traits that people associate with being cool.
Is “cool” just a word people use to describe what they like, or are there specific traits that make up being cool?
This the first large-scale empirical investigation on coolness.
The results were published in the Journal of Individual Differences in 2012.
The researchers first did an internet study on 353 participants.
Then, the researchers asked each participant to simply list between five to eight adjectives that they personally associate with “coolness.”
This was done to simply examine whether people responded in ways that demonstrated a kind of pattern.
Everyone had their own sort of idea about what “cool” meant.
Most words were used only by one person.
However, the words tended to cluster into broad patterns that were evaluated by the researchers. The 11 main over-arching words that described the patterns were:
- Prosocial (helping others)
- Emotionally controlled
Even though the words used to describe “coolness” seemed to be diverse, there still seems to be a sort of picture that emerges from the patterns.
Next, the researchers determined the extent to which coolness just equated to social desirability.
It could be that “cool” just means “socially desirable.” The latter is just a trait that a person should have to be a social/popular person.
So, researchers got a group of 508 students to do a second study.
In this study, participants were asked to rate the coolness and the social desirability of a group of characteristics that were related to both coolness and social desirability. This way, they could determine whether a certain trait fell more into one category or the other.
The resulting data showed that there were some traits that were more closely related to coolness, and some more closely related to just being socially desirable.
Traits that are more “COOL” than socially desirable:
- Emotional control
Traits that are more socially desirable than “COOL”:
- Prosocial (helping others)
- Drive for success
Traits that were right in the middle:
The researchers also examined the types of words that went into coolness to see if they fell into even broader clusters. They found that coolness tended to fall into two separate categories:
- Cachet coolness – The type of “cool” related to striving for popularity from peers. This involved words like adventurous, fun, ambitious, friendly, attractive, and self-assured.
- Contrarian coolness – This type of “cool” has more to do with rebelliousness. People with high contrarian coolness are more aloof, rough, rebellious, and tough.
In this experiment, the researchers wanted to see if coolness manifested itself in real people the same way as it did in the previous studies. It’s one thing to say “mysteriousness” is cool, but it’s another thing to say that your friend is mysterious, and that makes them cool.
A group of 410 people was recruited for this study.
Each person was required to give a list of people who knew them and could evaluate them accurately.
Then, the person’s contacts were notified to participate in the study as well. One contact was recruited for every person originally recruited.
Thus, the study was composed of 410 people, each with a friend to evaluate them.
After the researchers sent the pairs of people a survey, each original person was asked to rate themselves on a list of cool adjectives.
The participant’s partner was also asked to rate them on those same attributes.
For instance, a participant answers the question, “How adventurous do you consider yourself to be?”
Then the person’s partner answered the same question about the participant.
The researchers wanted to see if people’s own evaluations of their coolness matched what their friends’ evaluations were.
They found a fairly high correlation. People generally agreed with their friends on whether they themselves are cool (either high or low).
Generally, the traits seemed to once again cluster into two factors: cachet coolness and contrarian coolness. This confirms that these two types of cool tend to exist even in real people.
The researchers also found a “halo effect.” People who are rated as cool also tend to have higher ratings on other traits that aren’t directly related to being cool.
In this landmark study of coolness, several facts about coolness were uncovered.
“Coolness” isn’t just about social desirability. There are many positive adjectives that increase a person’s social desirability but don’t make them “cool” (for instance, competence).
“Coolness” comes in two flavors.
Cachet coolness is the level of “flair” in a person’s life. People who are thrill-seekers, help others, are ambitious and charismatic, etc. Have “cachet cool.”
Contrarian coolness is your personal level of James Dean or Johnny Cash. You live on the edge, you’re mysterious, hard to read, and you don’t care about what people think of you.
Dar-Nimrod, I., Hansen, I. G., Proulx, T., Lehman, D. R., Chapman, B. P., & Duberstein, P. R. (2012). Coolness: An empirical investigation. Journal of Individual Differences, 33(3), 175-185. Link: https://www.academia.edu/1517960/Coolness_An_Empirical_Investigation