Being Cool Is Not What It Used To Be
June 8, 2012

Being Cool Is Not What It Used To Be

Lee Rannals for

The definition of "cool" may have changed from generation to generation, according to new research published in the Journal of Individual Differences.

Researchers set out to find how the definition of "being cool" has changed since the days of James Dean and Miles Davis.

The team, led by a University of Rochester Medical Center psychologist, found the characteristics associated with being cool today are different than those that past generations considered cool, such as characters like Steve McQueen.

“When I set out to find what people mean by coolness, I wanted to find corroboration of what I thought coolness was,” Ilan Dar-Nimrod, Ph.D., lead author of “Coolness: An Empirical Investigation," said in a press release. “I was not prepared to find that coolness has lost so much of its historical origins and meaning–the very heavy countercultural, somewhat individualistic pose I associated with cool."

Dar-Nimrod said that he found James Dean is no longer the "epitome" of what is considered to be cool.

“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," Dar-Nimrod added in the press release.

He and his colleagues recruited about 1,000 people in the Vancouver, British Columbia area to complete a questionnaire on the attributes, behaviors and individuals they associated with the word cool.

The researchers uncovered the first systematic, quantitive examination of what characteristics recur in popular understandings of the cool personality.

They conducted three separate studies. In the first, participants generated characteristics that they perceived to be cool. In the second study, two samples of participants rated dozens of these characteristics on two dimensions: coolness and social desirability. During 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 traits like being friendly, competent, trendy and attractive.

“I got my first sunglasses when I was about 13,” Dar-Nimrod said in a press release. “There wasn´t a cooler kid on the block for the next few days. I was looking cool because I was distant from people."

"Today, that doesn´t seem to be supported. If anything, sociability is considered to be cool, being nice is considered to be cool," Dar-Nimrod added.

He said in some levels, participants in the study still appreciated the transitional elements of cool, like rebelliousness and detachment.

“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."

He said the researchers suggest that there is some transition from the countercultural cool to a generic version.

He said that their findings could point to possible health impacts, and that coolness may have some relevance to health behaviors.

“Smoking or drug use, for example, could be connected with a view of coolness that includes rebelliousness or a countercultural stance," Dar-Nimrod said in a press release. "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?”