06/14/2012 06:27 pm ET Updated Aug 14, 2012

The Birth of Cool (Research)

I was 13 years-old and I was the coolest kid on the block!

The day before, I took a big chunk of my bar mitzvah money, hardly earned through mandatory scripture reading on a podium at a local synagogue in front of a delighted bunch of cheek-pinching aunts and uncles, and I bought my first pair of sunglasses. I now roamed the streets armed with a dark tinted pair of American Optical shades (yes, they were pretty cool then... )

But what made me so cool in my mind? In retrospect, I think I implicitly sensed that I erected a barrier between me and the world. My eyes, the windows of my soul, were unreadable, allowing me to keep a stoic pose, which to me was the epitome of coolness.

In the following years I added other accessories to promote and sustain this coolness persona. I pierced my ears, adorned my body with tattoos, picked up the lovely habit of smoking (I swear it was pretty cool at one point), flirted with risky, edgy endeavors from unprotected scuba diving with sharks to bungee jumping with no cloths, and treated people with distinctly arrogant and ironic manner, all contributed to what I believed to be laying at the heart of coolness. I hoped that these elements would negate my palpable geeky choice of vocation -- one that has the salutation Dr. attached to it -- especially when I now resided in an English speaking country while supporting the name Nimrod...

The first indication that my costly efforts, which have left me a coughing addict with permanent body modifications, did not produce the desirable results came through a conversation with a fellow researcher, Ian Hansen, with whom I debated whether Steve Buscemi was cool or not. I could not stomach the idea that such a geeky, sleazy looking dude can be considered cool, so after a heated discussion Ian and I decided to solve our disagreement using decidedly non-cool methods -- look for empirical social science data that will indicate what are the criteria for coolness.

To our shock and dismay, we found that despite the omnipresence of the term "cool" there is no quantitative research that actually indicates what it means. We found sociological manifestos that argued that coolness has to do with the African American culture (especially maleness), other perspectives which claimed that it is about youthfulness and adolescence, and others still that associated the term with an exterior pose of faux rebelliousness and novelty that has been harnessed by scrupulous marketers to induce consumerism. But all these accounts, while fascinating in their own right, did not provide us with what we really wanted as empiricists: data to sustain their claims.

So we started listening to the uses of the term around us. This naturalistic observation method would surly help us decipher what coolness actually means, right?

Wrong. This attempt was another dead end in our investigation, although it did prove potent in increasing our frustration. We found out that cool can come up in pretty much any context. It apparently can be a reply to "I just finished all the carrots on my plate, mom," or "I just came back from the Middle East where I solved the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," or even "Let's go and Tee Pee the neighbor's house wearing ski masks at 2 a.m." So we were back at square 1, and the gloomy prospects of living in a world in which Buscemi was considered cool did not abate.

But these obstacles did not distract us from our quest. Instead, they led us to the birth of cool (research).

On what we found (i.e., what does coolness mean today), and whether Steve Buscemi is actually cool, in my next post...