What does it mean to be cool? – Part 2

In Part 1 we explored society’s images of what “cool” is, and how humans are wired to make quick judgements about the social value of others. We found that an attitude of disengagement led others to perceive people as being cooler, which led us to a question:

Why would a disengaging attitude lead to perceptions of cool? After all, being disengaged and cool towards people is the opposite of how we’ve been raised: one of the key lessons from childhood is to be nice, and friendly, and warm. Findings from this and prior research can address the counter-intuitive nature of cool. First, consider that as humans we live in co-operative society. Unlike many other animals, we live in close proximity to our peers, and depend on each other to survive and to thrive. However, we are not all equally dependent. While some of us have plenty of resources, some of us have too few. The more you have, the less dependent you are on people for support. And status level is connected to resource possession. Next, consider how being dependent on another person might influence how we behave towards them. If you have something I want, I am dependent on you, and I will naturally put in effort to connect with you so you can give me what I want. I am literally “needy.” On the other hand, if you want from me and I don’t want from you, I’m going to be far less willing to put in effort to engage you. I will be “cool” towards you. What follows is the finding discussed above: those who have enough are going put in less effort to connect, and thus display fewer engagement and more disengagement behaviors.

While this idea is easy to understand when the need is financial, the principle also applies to social requirements. It has been established that our need for social acceptance is fundamental, and research has found that the more dependent social interaction partner is willing to submit to the less dependent. Some call this “having the upper hand”. In the case of our “cool” person, I contend that he feels socially satiated – he has whatever social resources he needs, or at least has determined that he doesn’t want social resources from those currently around him. And he signals this independence through relative levels of engagement cues.

Simply put, less engagement and more disengagement cues are indicative of coolness because they tell others “I don’t need you, I have plenty.”

Conceptualizing “coolness” in this way allows me a better understanding some of my earlier dating experiences. When I was younger and searching for the secret to being cool, I would fall apart when I met someone attractive. There was one girl I met my sophomore year of college, Sara, a freshman who was both beautiful and friendly. I was desperate for her to like me, in part because she was pretty, and in part because of the self-esteem boost I knew would come with acceptance from such a hot girl. It’s safe to say that I stood to gain more from her than she did from me, and this was sadly apparent in how we interacted. She was friendly and normal. But, in my desire, I did whatever I could to make her like me, including (but not limited to) agreeing with whatever she said, not bringing up things they might disagree with, smiling and nodding like bobble-head, complimenting her, dropping any standards I might formerly have held, and trying to say things that would impress her, whether true or greatly exaggerated. This attempted courtship went about as well as you’d expect. However, things changed drastically when I gave up on her and started dating someone else. All of a sudden, I discovered that I was a real person around Sara. I no longer threw out an abundance of unearned engagement signals to her just because she was pretty. I didn’t need to, because I felt romantically satiated. Ironically, not needing anything from Sara anymore meant I naturally displayed “cooler” signals, which in turn lead her (and other women) to find me attractive. While this felt like Murphy’s Law at the time, I now understand the dynamic. This phenomenon probably accounts in part for the finding that those in relationships report being hit-on more frequently.

While this theory of coolness is helpful, there are some strong caveats. Stay tuned next time for a discussion of why the “I’m going to try to seem cool” is a bad dating strategy that’s sure to backfire.


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