06/17/2012 04:28 pm ET Updated Aug 17, 2012

The Secret of Coolness Revealed

In my last post I've left you on a cliffhanger: I promised to let you all in on the $64,000 question 00 what is coolness. Armed with the knowledge that this secret will be revealed to you in the next post, you undoubtedly pulled out your child's college fund account designating the newly available resources to the current social well-being of your beloved offspring and college be damned.

That was a cool decision!

Or was it?

I guess the answer will be for you to decide after reading about the fruits of the coolness hunt that was conducted by a group of social science sleuths.

As intimated in my previous post we were facing an uncommon predicament. Cool seems to surface in contexts which suggest that people use it to indicate mere likeability (I like Jane, she's cool), but also in contexts that point to a much darker, edgy construct enamored with individualistic, rebellious counterculturalism, physically imposing but emotionally mute (Marlon Brando was one cool dude). So how can we untangle this mess?

Faced with our own disagreement about what coolness truly means, we decided to allow for the common perspectives on the construct to emerge naturally rather than test specific theoretical accounts as to the secret behind the construct. To achieve that we asked a few hundred young adults to tell as what are the characteristics, people, and behaviors they associate with coolness (and with the opposite of coolness -- uncoolness). We were inundated with thousands of different entries which, at first blush, indicated that coolness is just too idiosyncratic to hone in on. A closer look at the list, however, indicated that many of the terms may be pointing to some overarching categories. Whether a person mentioned assured, self-assured, confident, or comfortable in their own skin, we have identified the underlying gist revolving around confidence. We similarly identified additional categories revolving around attractiveness (e.g., hot, handsome), pro-social values (e.g., caring, egalitarian), friendliness (e.g., social, gregarious), drive for success (e.g., driven, ambitious), personal competence (e.g., intelligent, talented), unconventionality (e.g., individualistic, mysterious), and trendiness (e.g., fashionable, current). To our surprise, we did not receive many entries indicating traditional cool characteristics such as rebelliousness, irony, and detachment.

Armed with these unprompted indications and the published accounts, we distilled a list of over 90 traits, and ask an additional few hundred individuals to rate them on coolness and also on social desirability. We reached out to our bag of statistical tools and conducted a number of analyses which allowed us to see that there was a pretty significant overlap between what people view as socially desirable and what people evaluated as cool. However, they also indicated that these concepts are distinct (if related) and not interchangeable. With another visit to our toolkit we were able to demonstrate that coolness seems to suffer from, for a lack of a better term, dissociative personality disorder (multiple personalities); under the same construct we found two distinct core combinations of characteristics which were very different and unrelated.

The dominant coolness valuations were driven by the elements I've mentioned above with friendliness and personal competence being at the epicenter of the facet. This coolness represents the kind of boy (or girl) you want to bring home to meet your parents. It revolves around elements that indicate a confident, active, status-conscious personification. (Anyone else have the image of Justin Bieber mysteriously appear in their mental slideshow after reading this description?) We termed this facet of coolness, "Cachet coolness," and in our studies it was by far the prevailing driver of coolness valuations. However, this factor only accounted for some of the valuations.

Lurking behind this "boy next door" image we found the sunglasses-adorned face of Miles Davis staring right back at us. The data we collected indicated that coolness was impacted by another, second facet in which rebelliousness was the main element and detachment, toughness, ironic stance, and individualism were also apparent. We have brought back James Dean to our current days' cool. I could breathe freely again. Cancel my tattoos' removal appointment. Light another smoke.

Under the dominance of Cachet coolness we found the historical version of countercultural cool alive and (feebly) kicking. We fondly termed it "Contrarian coolness," as it can so ably serve in the defense of the (self-perceived) minority individual who encounters disdain from mainstream by promoting a contrarian stance. It allows such an individual to erect a barrier that can offer ample protection from scorn whether it'd be emotionally (by muting one's emotions and detaching oneself), cognitively (by adopting a rebellious stance that rejects mainstream values and norms), or behaviorally (by adapting a tough exterior that deters physical threats). The uses of such a facet are arguably as important today as they were 80 years ago, if, perhaps, in a somewhat mutated version. The perception of I against the world (i.e., perceived minority status) is quite rampant, with so many individuals viewing themselves as outside the mainstream based on ethnicity, sexual orientation, beliefs, attitudes, fashion sense, or because their father smelled of elderberries. It may explain the enduring cultural footprint of Contrarian coolness, when so many other omnipresent terms have been ungroovily lost. Utilizing these cool defenses may still help such individuals cope with the perceived slights they face, maintain a feeling of self worth, and even (slightly) boost their perceived coolness.

And if not, there are always Kool cigarettes...

For those who would like to read the original scientific publication, the folks at Hogrefe have generously made it freely available:

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.

Previously posted on Psychology Today.