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Concept of “cool” has warmed, veered from its origins, study finds

June 8, 2012
Courtesy of Uni­vers­ity of Roch­es­ter Med­i­cal Cen­ter
and World Science staff

The pop­u­lar con­cept of “cool” in our day is in some ways the near-opposite of what it meant when it first be­came wide­spread in casual En­glish, new re­search con­cludes.

“Cool­ness has lost so much of its his­tor­i­cal ori­gins and mean­ing,” said psy­chol­o­gist Ilan Dar-Nimrod of the Uni­vers­ity of Roch­es­ter Med­i­cal Cen­ter in New York, lead au­thor of the re­search, pub­lished in the Jour­nal of In­di­vid­ual Dif­fer­ences.

Dar-Nimrod is naturally not referring to “cool” as in low temp­era­ture, but rather “cool” as it used to con­note re­bel­lious­ness, emo­tion­al con­trol, tough­ness and thrill-seeking, he ex­plained. Mid-20th cen­tu­ry pop­u­lar cul­ture at­trib­ut­ed qual­i­ties of “cool­ness” to fig­ures such as ac­tor James Dean and jazz great Miles Da­vis.

Now, cool of­ten just means nice.

“When I set out to find what peo­ple mean by cool­ness, I wanted to find cor­ro­bora­t­ion of what I thought cool­ness was,” he said. “I was not pre­pared to find that cool­ness has lost…the very heavy coun­ter­cul­tural, some­what in­di­vid­ualistic pose I as­so­ci­at­ed with cool,” added Dar-Nimrod, lead au­thor of the study en­ti­tled “Cool­ness: An Em­pir­i­cal In­ves­ti­ga­t­ion.”

“James Dean is no long­er the epit­o­me of cool,” Dar-Nimrod said. “The much darker ver­sion of what cool­ness is is still there, but it is not the main fo­cus. The main thing is: Do I like this per­son? Is this per­son nice to peo­ple, at­trac­tive, con­fi­dent and suc­cess­ful? That’s cool to­day, at least among young main­stream in­di­vid­uals.”

The popular us­age of the word “cool” in in­for­mal speech is rooted in the jazz cul­ture of the 1930s, ac­cord­ing to Uni­vers­ity of California-Santa Bar­ba­ra Eng­lish Pro­fes­sor Al­an Liu, writ­ing in the 1994 book The Laws of Cool: Knowl­edge Work and the Cul­ture of In­forma­t­ion. Liu ob­serves that the term be­came as­so­ci­at­ed with coun­ter­cul­tural move­ments through the genera­t­ions and long main­tained a slightly sub­ver­sive air. 

His­tor­ic­ally, the no­tion of cool­ness has has al­so been closely as­so­ci­at­ed with fashion-conscious youth who are well-attuned to freshly emerg­ing trends, ac­cord­ing to Mat­thew Garite, an Eng­lish pro­fes­sor at Drake Uni­vers­ity in Iowa, who teaches a course en­ti­tled “The Hip­ster: A Cul­tur­al His­to­ry of Cool.”

In re­search that has de­vel­oped over sev­er­al years, Dar-Nimrod and col­leagues re­cruited al­most 1,000 peo­ple in the Van­cou­ver, Brit­ish Co­lum­bia, ar­ea, who com­plet­ed an ex­ten­sive questionna­ire on the at­tributes, be­hav­iors and in­di­vid­uals they as­so­ci­at­ed with the word cool.

The re­search­ers con­ducted three sep­a­rate stud­ies. In the first, par­ti­ci­pants gen­er­at­ed char­ac­ter­is­tics that they per­ceived to be cool. In the sec­ond, two sam­ples of par­ti­ci­pants rat­ed doz­ens of these char­ac­ter­is­tics on two di­men­sions: cool­ness and so­cial de­sir­abil­ity. In the third stu­dy, par­ti­ci­pants rat­ed friends both on their cool­ness and on a va­ri­e­ty of per­sonal­ity de­scrip­tors that were iden­ti­fied as rel­e­vant in the oth­er stud­ies.

A sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of par­ti­ci­pants used ad­jec­tives that fo­cused on pos­i­tive, so­cially de­sir­a­ble traits, such as friend­ly, com­pe­tent, trendy and at­trac­tive, the re­search­ers re­ported.

“I got my first sun­glass­es when I was about 13,” said Dar-Nimrod. “There was­n’t a cool­er kid on the block for the next few days. I was look­ing cool be­cause I was dis­tant from peo­ple. My emo­tions were not some­thing they could read. I put a fil­ter be­tween me and ever­yone else. That, in my mind, made me cool. To­day, that does­n’t seem to be sup­ported. If an­y­thing, so­cia­bil­ity is con­sid­ered to be cool, be­ing nice is con­sid­ered to be cool. And in an ox­y­mo­ron, be­ing pas­sion­ate is con­sid­ered to be cool—at least, it is part of the dom­i­nant per­cep­tion of what cool­ness is. How can you com­bine the idea of cool—emo­tion­ally con­trolled and dis­tant—with pas­sion­ate?”

At some lev­els, par­ti­ci­pants in the study still ap­pre­ci­at­e the tra­di­tion­al el­e­ments of cool, such as re­bel­lious­ness and de­tach­ment, he re­marked. But not as strongly as friend­li­ness and warmth.

“We have a kind of a schiz­o­phren­ic cool­ness con­cept in our mind,” Dar-Nimrod said. “Al­most any one of us will be cool in some peo­ple’s eyes, which sug­gests the id­i­o­syn­cratic way cool­ness is eval­u­at­ed. But some will be judged as cool in many peo­ple’s eyes, which sug­gests there is a co­re valua­t­ion to cool­ness, and to­day that does not seem to be the his­tor­i­cal na­ture of cool. We sug­gest there is some tran­si­tion from the coun­ter­cul­tural cool to a ge­ner­ic ver­sion of it’s good and I like it. But this tran­si­tion is by no way com­plet­ed.”

Dar-Nimrod’s main re­search in­ter­ests are the ef­fects of ge­net­ics and so­cial en­vi­ron­ment on decision-making and health be­hav­iors. The cool­ness re­search be­gan when Dar-Nimrod was a doc­tor­al stu­dent at the Uni­vers­ity of Brit­ish Co­lum­bia. He and a fel­low stu­dent, Ian G. Han­sen, a co-au­thor of the Jour­nal of In­di­vid­ual Dif­fer­ences ar­ti­cle and cur­rently a re­search­er at York Col­lege of City Uni­vers­ity of New York, ar­gued over wheth­er Steve Bus­cemi, an ac­tor in the mov­ie “Far­go” and the ca­ble tel­e­vi­sion se­ries “Board­walk Em­pire,” is cool.

“I­an thought Bus­cemi was cool and I could not ac­cept him as cool be­cause he was so un­at­trac­tive and seemed such a weasel,” Dar-Nimrod said. “That got us think­ing about just what cool­ness is.”

The cool­ness find­ings could point to pos­si­ble health im­pacts, he added. “Cool­ness may have some rel­e­vance to health be­hav­iors,” Dar-Nimrod said. “Smok­ing or drug use, for ex­am­ple, could be con­nect­ed with a view of cool­ness that in­cludes re­bel­lious­ness or a coun­ter­cul­tural stance. This can in­form fu­ture health re­search on be­hav­iors. Is cool­ness re­lat­ed to peo­ple’s choice of un­healthy be­hav­iors, such body modifica­t­ions, un­pro­tected sex or even eat­ing be­hav­iors?”


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The popular concept of a “cool” person in our day is in some ways the near-opposite of what it meant when it first became widespread, a new study reports. “Coolness has lost so much of its historical origins and meaning,” said psychologist Ilan Dar-Nimrod of the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York, lead author of the research, published in the Journal of Individual Differences. “Cool” used to connote rebelliousness, emotional control, toughness and thrill-seeking, he explained. Mid-20th century popular culture attributed qualities of “coolness” to famous figures such as actor James Dean and jazz great Miles Davis. Now, cool often just means nice. “When I set out to find what people mean by coolness, I wanted to find corroboration of what I thought coolness was,” he said. “I was not prepared to find that coolness has lost…the very heavy countercultural, somewhat individualistic pose I associated with cool,” added Dar-Nimrod, lead author of the study entitled “Coolness: An Empirical Investigation.” “James Dean is no longer the epitome of cool,” Dar-Nimrod said. “The much darker version of what coolness is still there, but it is not the main focus. The main thing is: Do I like this person? Is this person nice to people, attractive, confident and successful? That’s cool today, at least among young mainstream individuals.” The modern usage of the word “cool” in informal speech emerged from the jazz culture of the 1930s, according to University of California-Santa Barbara English Professor Alan Liu, writing in the 1994 book The Laws of Cool: Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information. Liu observes that the term became associated with countercultural movements through the generations and long maintained a slightly subversive air. Historically, the notion of coolness has has also been closely associated with fashion-conscious youth who are well-attuned to freshly emerging trends, according to Matthew Garite, an English professor at Drake University in Des Moines, Ia., who teaches a course entitled “The Hipster: A Cultural History of Cool.” In research that has developed over several years, Dar-Nimrod and colleagues recruited almost 1,000 people in the Vancouver, British Columbia, area, who completed an extensive questionnaire on the attributes, behaviors and individuals they associated with the word cool. The researchers conducted three separate studies. In the first, participants generated characteristics that they perceived to be cool. In the second, two samples of participants rated dozens of these characteristics on two dimensions: coolness and social desirability. In the third study, participants rated friends both on their coolness and on a variety of personality descriptors that were identified as relevant in the other studies. A significant number of participants used adjectives that focused on positive, socially desirable traits, such as friendly, competent, trendy and attractive, the researchers reported. “I got my first sunglasses when I was about 13,” said Dar-Nimrod. “There wasn’t a cooler kid on the block for the next few days. I was looking cool because I was distant from people. My emotions were not something they could read. I put a filter between me and everyone else. That, in my mind, made me cool. Today, that doesn’t seem to be supported. If anything, sociability is considered to be cool, being nice is considered to be cool. And in an oxymoron, being passionate is considered to be cool—at least, it is part of the dominant perception of what coolness is. How can you combine the idea of cool—emotionally controlled and distant—with passionate?” At some levels, participants in the study still appreciated the traditional elements of cool, such as rebelliousness and detachment, he remarked. But not as strongly as friendliness and warmth. “We have a kind of a schizophrenic coolness concept in our mind,” Dar-Nimrod said. “Almost any one of us will be cool in some people’s eyes, which suggests the idiosyncratic way coolness is evaluated. But some will be judged as cool in many people’s eyes, which suggests there is a core valuation to coolness, and today that does not seem to be the historical nature of cool. We suggest there is some transition from the countercultural cool to a generic version of it’s good and I like it. But this transition is by no way completed.” Dar-Nimrod’s main research interests are the effects of genetics and social environment on decision-making and health behaviors. The coolness research began when Dar-Nimrod was a doctoral student at the University of British Columbia. He and a fellow student, Ian G. Hansen, a co-author of the Journal of Individual Differences article and currently a researcher at York College of City University of New York, argued over whether Steve Buscemi, an actor in the movie “Fargo” and the cable television series “Boardwalk Empire,” is cool. “Ian thought Buscemi was cool and I could not accept him as cool because he was so unattractive and seemed such a weasel,” Dar-Nimrod said. “That got us thinking about just what coolness is.” The coolness findings could point to possible health impacts, he added. “Coolness may have some relevance to health behaviors,” Dar-Nimrod said. “Smoking or drug use, for example, could be connected with a view of coolness that includes rebelliousness or a countercultural stance. This can inform future health research on behaviors. Is coolness related to people’s choice of unhealthy behaviors, such body modifications, unprotected sex or even eating behaviors?”