The hidden science behind what makes something "cool"

The hidden science behind what makes something "cool"

CultureAugust 11, 2017 By Lindsey Kline

Earning the status of “cool” is no small feat — and the people, brands, and behaviors labeled as cool are constantly evolving.

Smoking was cool for generations, but no one huffing on a cigarette is still considered bad-ass. Pabst Blue Ribbon had been a failing brand since the 70s, until hipsters gave the trashy beer a trendy new identity.

The creation of “cool” and “uncool” might seem completely random and unpredictable, but researchers like Caleb Warren refuse to believe that. Warren, a professor at the University of Arizona, set out to scientifically determine what makes something cool, hip and happening, and the result reveals why we’ve always been enamored with the rebellious.

“A cool thing is more than just something good. Cool things have another dimension, and that’s autonomy,” Warren says over the phone. Autonomy, as he explains, means diverging from expectations, rather than conforming to them. Deviating from the norm might sound simple enough, but it’s a difficult balance to strike.

Autonomy is challenging to achieve because it has to be appropriate. “A rapist or mass murderer is autonomous,” Warren says, “but they’re diverging from norms that everyone agrees should be followed.” To be perceived as cool instead of psychotic, you have to stray from norms that are considered unnecessary or repressive, and stray only slightly.

However, not everyone agrees on which cultural rules are legitimate and illegitimate. Some pockets of society value independence, while others prefer conformity. To measure which groups most respect rule-breaking, Warren developed a scale he calls “counter-culturalism.”

“Counter-culturalism is the extent to which an individual believes social norms are repressive or harmful,” Warren says. Folks with a distrust in institutions like mass media, government, organized religion, or the economic elite — who believe that ‘the man’ is bringing them down — are more counter-cultural.

“Punks, hippies, or hackers are high on the counter-culturalism scale. Your grandma or some man in middle management would be a lot lower. For the people who score higher, more deviation is cool,” Warren says.

As an illustration, take laws against stealing. Most people agree these societal rules are necessary, but there are cool ways to diverge. Take Robin Hood, for example. Because he stole from the rich and corrupt and gave to the poor, his theft was seen as appropriate. However, a pickpocket stealing from struggling young adults wouldn’t be seen as cool. Unless of course, you’re asking a highly counter-cultural individual — as in, a crazy anarchist who just wants to watch the world burn — and he or she might tell you that that pickpocket is the coolest person this side of the Mississippi.

The only thing consistent about coolness is that it’s never consistent. One reason is that it’s extremely subjective, because no one can seem to agree on which norms are acceptable to break, or how far from the rule we can deviate before we look like lunatics. Another reason nothing cool can stay is because coolness is a self-destructive status.

“Hardly anything has a long lasting perception of cool,” Warren says. “When something becomes cool, it starts out being essentially unknown, but once the coolness spreads and it becomes well-known, it’s seen as mainstream.” Then, the fad is as good as dead, because listening to a mainstream band or following a mainstream fashion trend no longer demonstrates autonomy.

In American culture, where independence and nonconformity are embraced, measured rebellion is the key to coolness. But trying to achieve a lasting, universal cool is likely a hopeless pursuit. To come even close, Warren believes, we need data to define, study and understand the science of what makes something cool.

The catch-22, unfortunately, is that studying the science of what’s cool doesn’t really make you a cooler person. Quite the contrary, Warren laughs, “if anything, it makes us way less cool.”