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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.

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.

Around 75 hours of Speed-Dating are Required to Meet 1 Romantic Partner

How much time and effort do you think you need to invest in order to find a romantic relationship? If we’re talking about speed-dating, the answer is close to 75 hours. Is that surprising? For many people, the idea of investing a certain amount of time in order to get a relationship might fly in the face of the spontaneous “it just happened” mentality we have become accustom to. But whether we admit it or not, how much time we invest will affect how much dating we do, and how likely we are to be successful. Going back to the 75 hours of speed dating, consider what this means: if the average speed dating event lasts 3 hours and you’re meeting 11 potential partners, you would need to go to 25 speed-dating events. You need to meet 275 people in order to find that special someone, due to a low success rate of 4-6%. Now take a moment to reflect – realistically, how many hours are you investing in finding a romantic relationship? This means meeting people in the course of daily life, engaging in new activities, developing networks of friends, going to social gatherings, and trying singles-specific activities like online- or speed-dating.

How many potential partners are you meeting each week? And how long will it take to get up to 275? If you find you are meeting 5 a week, you’re still looking at over a year in order to get up to 275. It takes initiative, effort, and assertiveness to meet new people; on the other hand, it doesn’t take any work to sit on the couch and watch reruns of Becker (anyone get the reference?). But often when people complain that they aren’t meeting anyone, you also find out that they aren’t investing much time in looking. Interestingly, the amount of effort men put into meeting women has also been found to significantly predict who women want to date after a three minute speed-date.

Now these numbers come from just one recent German study, and it looked only at the outcomes of three minute-long dates. And people tend to meet their romantic partners in a range of different ways, most commonly through work, school, or through friends of friends. We also don’t know how much time and effort would be required to predict developing a romantic relationship. This analysis doesn’t consider the fact that some potential partners you meet are a better “match” for you than others (e.g., you are likely to match with people within friendship networks compared to strangers because of increased similarity). But it does illustrate the concept that time and effort must be invested to increase the odds of getting the outcome you desire. So take a look at how much time you invest towards achieving important goals, and whether you are dedicating as much time as needed to developing your love life.


  1. Asendorpf, J. B., Penke, L., & Back, M. D. (2011). From dating to mating and relating: Predictors of initial and long-term outcomes of speed-dating in a community sample. European Journal of Personality, 25(1), 16-30.

Hey Ladies!: The Benefits of Being a Mover (and Shaker)

Jean Smith of Flirtology just authored a great post on Science of Relationships about initiation in flirting. According to a recent Psychological Science (a very prestigious journal of scientific psychology) article, we are less receptive to others’ attempts to flirt with us than we might think. The article found that we are more selective when others approach us than we are when we do the approaching.

Have a look at the the post:

Ladies, consider the following setting: It’s a Friday night. The place is buzzing. Across the room, a handsome stranger has caught your eye. You want to attract his attention, but how? If one were to follow traditional protocol, you would bat your eyelashes, flash a well-toned calf, sit and wait, hoping he will somehow get the message and make the journey across the room. However, it is 2011. Surely, sitting and waiting is not the only way for a woman to make contact with a man.

Read the rest of the post at the original site, and be sure to visit Science of Relationships!

Posture, Power, and Dating

Do you remember how concerned your parents were with your posture? “Shoulders back”, they might have reminded you, “don’t slouch,” or perhaps they’d encourage you to keep your “chin up.” Although it’s unlikely they were thinking about your future dating life, it turns out that our parents were correct – posture is important. In fact, what we do with our bodies is far more powerful than even psychologists had previously expected.

Posture or body expansion is an important communication signal in the animal kingdom. From cats to dogs, bears and primates, all the way up the evolutionary ladder to humans, the expansion of the body is associated with power, status, and dominance. Bears will rear onto their hind legs to intimidate, birds will puff out their feathers or spread their wings, chimps will expand their arms. Power is associated with size. On the flip-side, submission also has a common appearance across animals – constricting the body, bending down, lowering eye contact, essentially making the body small and non-threatening. This is submission to power, like someone showing respect to a king.

Researchers have found that, as humans, we assume someone is powerful and high in status when we see expanded body posture. Picture someone sitting with their limbs spread out (e.g., legs apart and arms resting on the chair next to them, or standing with hands on their hips); you are likely to automatically perceive that they are a person of high status. We assume someone is low in power when we see constricted posture, like them being hunched over with their hands in their lap, or their legs pulled under them.

Recent fascinating research has shown that, as well as convincing others that we are more powerful, expanded body posture appears to convince ourselves that we are more powerful1. After deliberately posing participants into powerful expanded postures, researchers discovered that these participants thought and behaved more like powerful people. Like those in power, they took risks, reporting feeling powerful, were more inclined to approach new experiences rather than avoid them, and even performed better on abstract cognitive tasks. Another similar study found that just two minutes in these powerful poses leads to increases in testosterone and a decrease in the stress hormone cortisol – the endocrine profile associated with powerful people – compared to those posed in constricted postures2. And just how strong are these posture effects? Stronger than being placed in an actual position of power (like being able to control the rewards other participants received) or recalling experiences of being powerful, according to one study.

These studies come out of the investigation of embodied cognition, in which researchers look at how the body influences thought (as well as feeling and behavior). And how does this apply to your dating life? Power has long been recognized as an attractive trait for men, so the appearance and experience of power that comes from adopting powerful postures will be beneficial to men. Research has shown that men who expand their bodies in bars are the recipients of more “come-hither” signals from women3. Additionally, the boost in risk-taking and approach-motivation that comes naturally with increased experience of power will lead to more attempts at meeting people – one of the core principles to successful dating. The wonderful thing is that these benefits flow from the simple act of expanding the body and taking up more space. No complicated mental or verbal techniques required. (No wonder your authors include this principle in their Social Warm Up exercises when working with patients on dating skills.)

As always, there’s a wrong way to do this. But if you start in moderation, perhaps checking in with your body occasionally to see that you aren’t overly constricting yourself, you are likely to sample some of the benefits. Go try it out.


  1. Huang, L., Galinsky, A. D., Gruenfeld, D. H., & Guillory, L. E. (2011). Powerful postures versus powerful roles: Which is the proximate correlate of thought and behavior?. Psychological Science, 22(1), 95-102.
  2. Carney, D. R., Cuddy, A. C., & Yap, A. J. (2010). Power posing: Brief nonverbal displays affect neuroendocrine levels and risk tolerance. Psychological Science, 21(10), 1363-1368.
  3. Renninger, L., Wade, T., & Grammer, K. (2004). Getting that female glance: Patterns and consequences of male nonverbal behavior in courtship contexts. Evolution and Human Behavior, 25(6), 416-431.

The Power of the Rebel

A series of experiments, published in this month’s edition of Social Psychological and Personality Science, has documented an effect you no doubt recognize from growing up – people who break the rules are perceived to be more powerful. I have strong memories of how the coolest people at school were often also the ones who broke the rules; they’d make risque jokes, they’d put their feet up on their desk, they’d cross the road against the light, they’d even occasionally skip class. It seemed like they weren’t as worried about getting in trouble as the rest of us.

Now researchers in Amsterdam show that it still works that way for adults. In four separate studies, they found that adults breaking rules or norms (socially accepted but unspoken rules) were considered more powerful by observers than those who dutifully obeyed. The rule-breakers were observed doing things like taking coffee from a city official who was out of the room, putting their feet up on a desk or chair, dumping cigarette ash on the ground instead of an ashtray, and breaking bookkeeping rules. Observers thought these rule-breakers were more powerful people, as well as more likely to be angry and not sad, and more approach-oriented. The effect was found across different types of experiments, as observers read about rules breakers in vignettes, or looked at them in pictures, or actually interacted briefly with them.

This connection between rule-breaking and power relates to dating, because research has found women are attracted to power in men. But before we head out and start breaking rules willy-nilly, lets think a little more about this effect. Simply breaking a norm won’t increase attractiveness. For example, let’s say I went out wearing a plastic bucket on my head and started throwing eggs at passers-by – though I’d certainly be breaking norms, I doubt I’d be a new sex symbol. It’s likely that only certain rules or norms can be broken with success – something science has yet to establish. Some clues may be found in related research on risk-taking: it has been found that people who take more risks are more attractive, but only certain types of risks, like standing up to peer pressure, or playing adventurous sports. In these studies, taking health risks like using drugs was not attractive. It needs to be determined which rules or norms specifically are OK to break.

Also consider why it is that rule breaking convey power. The study’s authors point out that powerful people can get away with breaking rules, and so when we see someone breaking rules, we assume they are powerful. However, by digging a little deeper we discover that it is not the act of breaking the rule that actually matters. What really matters is “volition capacity” (or acting of your own volition). Essentially, what matters is not that you broke a rule, but that you had the strength of character to do what you wanted. In fact, the rule only matters in that it gives you an opportunity to show that you do what you want – it gives you something to oppose. Breaking a rule that you don’t care about or agree with is a straightforward way to show that you are the sort of person who sticks to their convictions. But, if you think about it, we can follow a rule and still show volitional capacity – for example, by adhering to it in the face of opposition.

When it comes to dating, this research actually fits nicely within the current model we espouse here at Interpersonal Science. You don’t become more attractive by trying to play a bad boy in real life, purposely breaking rules in order to look cool. Instead, you take the time to understand yourself, recognize what you personally believe, and then act in accordance with it. Anxiety is a common barrier to being able to living in this authentic way – we let anxiety stop us from behaving how we wish, and doing what we actually want to do. Thus, increased self-awareness and treatment of anxiety leads to becoming naturally more powerful and authentic people, which in turn flows into improved dating success.


  1. Van Kleef, G. A., Homan, A. C., Finkenauer, C., Gündemir, C., & Stamkou, E. (2011). Breaking the Rules to Rise to Power: How Norm Violators Gain Power in the Eyes of Others. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 2(5), 500-507.

New Stuff for Professionals on our Site!

Interpersonal Science has just added a section for professionals (researchers, clinicians, educators, etc.) on our website. This section includes our recent presentations relevant to relationship formation and minimal dating, and we plan to add more resources in the future. The professional page can be found at

We are also very excited to announce the creation of an online forum for professionals to discuss and share information about dating research and clinical interventions. The forum is free and open to all professionals. Log on to to join!

Finances and Relationships

With all the dire news regarding the global financial situation dominating the headlines, the difficulties facing individuals’ (and couples’) finances may have unforeseen consequences for the relationships of many people throughout the world. Research has shown that money is one of the most (if not the most) common factor contributing to married couples’ arguments. The worsening economic picture in many countries is likely to put a great deal of additional stress on a large number of relationships.

Although the immediate fallout of the global economic problems on couples may not be evident for years, there is the possibility of what scientists call a “cohort effect,” in which there is a group of people with a common experience due to the events taking place at a specific time in their lives. For example, GIs returning to the United States and Canada after WWII were very ready to settle down and start families: many desired a return to a sense of “normalcy” that was given up when they went off to fight in Europe or the Pacific. This resulted in a strong spike in birthrates which we often call the “baby boom” generation. Many men who might not otherwise have married or had children (at least not at that specific time) ended up doing so within the span of a few years.

It does not take too much imagination to think about the effects that the weakened economy could have on couples today. Perhaps years from now, we’ll look back to see a large proportion of divorces and/or breakups; relationships that would not otherwise have ended (at least not at the specific time they did) had they not been exposed to the stresses of the current financial environment.

Life Stages in Dating

In her book Hooking Up, Kathleen Bogle discusses the transition from college to post-collegiate life and the changes in the dating scene that take place. According to Bogle, young adults’ expectations for physical and emotional intimacy change; casual relationships become more formal as social norms dictate longer-term relationships. The idea of needing to adjust one’s outlook to fit with the “rules of the game” for dating at a specific stage of life (e.g., high school, college, young adulthood, middle age) is an important thing to keep in mind at any age.

One question this raises is how a recently-single man or woman can cope with starting to date again. A person who has been in a long-term relationship may all of a sudden find them self in unfamiliar territory. This could be the plight of the middle-aged recent divorcee (as in Tom Hanks’ character in Sleepless in Seattle; now there’s an old movie reference), or a younger person at the end of a relationship that bridged their transition from high school to college, or from college to “real life.” This sort of “dating culture shock” involves the need to rapidly learn the new, unspoken rules of a process that was once very familiar. Although this may seem daunting, our brains are designed to learn and adapt to a changing social world. Like anything else, it just takes time.