What Does it Mean to be Cool? – Part 1

When I was younger I really wanted to be “cool”. I looked around me and saw that the cool guys were far more popular with girls than I was. In fact, being cool seemed to trump even the need to be physically attractive. While people wondered “why is she going out with him?” I knew it was because he was cool. Sadly, I was not cool. And unfortunately, although I could identify who was cool, I couldn’t identify what made them that way. This made it particularly challenging to become cooler, since I didn’t didn’t have a clue what to do. So I asked around. “What does it mean to be cool?” I collected a bunch of theories – the basic thread of which was that seeming like you don’t care, not putting in effort, and not trying to be cool makes you cool. This did not work for me since I could plainly see that plenty of people didn’t care and put in no effort to be cool, and yet were as removed as I was from the pinnacle of cool. Far from being James Dean of the campus, they were badly dressed and socially shunned. Without a clear answer, I came back to this topic regularly over the years, but never reached a satisfying conclusion. But recently, I came across an article that finally gave me insight into what exactly “cool” is.

Research coming out of Dasher Keltner’s lab looked at the behavior cues we use to judge others when given only a short amount of time – 60 seconds in this case. The researchers broke 100 participants into groups of two, and then videotaped a 5 minute get-acquainted session between the two strangers. They found was that high and low status people (based on SES) behaved differently in these interactions. Compared to their low status peers, the higher status people were a little colder towards their interaction partners. They showed fewer “engagement cues” while getting acquainted – they looked at their partners less, they didn’t laugh as much, and were less likely to nod their heads or raise their eyebrows. Engagement cues are all ways of dedicating attention towards partners and encouraging a connection. At the same time, higher status people displayed more “disengagement cues” than their lower status counterparts – during interactions they were more likely to pick lint off themselves, doodle, and fidget with nearby objects. All these behaviors convey a distinct lack of attention and encouragement towards a conversation partner.

It turns out you don’t have to be a psychological scientist to recognize the lack of engagement from high status people. Observers who were shown 60 second clips of the interactions could tell with reasonable accuracy the status level of each person involved. They knew, better than chance (that is, what you would expect to get if you guessed), who came from high SES homes and who did not. Additionally, researchers showed that observers were using engagement and disengagement cues to accurately predict who was higher and lower in status. It is likely that as we encounter people in our daily lives, we are also making automatic judgments based on these cues.

This study got me wondering: could engagement and disengagement cues be telling us something about a person’s level of coolness? It occurred to me, while reading, that these high status people look awfully similar to my mental picture of the “cool guy”. I picture the cool guy leaning back, against a wall or on a couch, and not really giving much attention to others. He’s listening or engaged in the conversation, but only if it interests him. He’s the opposite of “needy” – if the needy guy is doing lots of work to make others like him, the cool guy is certainly not. In fact, I picture him paying far less attention to others, unless they “deserve” it (by being interesting, exciting, etc.). At the same time, I picture everyone else paying him a lot of attention, hanging on his every word. It even fits with the semantics of “cool”. He isn’t warm, he isn’t hot, he isn’t excitable, he’s calm and he’s cool.

The idea of equating coolness with reduced engagement stands up to the pop-culture test. Think about it for a second – doesn’t the high status person in the Keltner study sound a little like the famous “cool guys” of history? Picture James Dean. Do you picture him smiling, nodding, laughing, or do you see him apart from others, focused on something more important than trying to impress and win over everyone around him. Or think of Brad Pitt in Fight Club, or Ocean’s 11, (or most other movies). What would it be like if you were talking to him? Think even of the caricature of a “cool guy,” Fonzie in Happy Days. When I picture myself talking to these characters, I imagine substantially more disengagement and less engagement cues than I might get from someone a little needier, like Tom Cruise or Bradley Cooper.

But why would a disengaging attitude lead to perceptions of cool? We’ll get into that in Part 2.


  1. Kraus, M. W., & Keltner, D. (2009). Signs of socioeconomic status: A thin-slicing approach. Psychological Science, 20(1), 99-106.