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.

What You Wear on a Date: It Matters

Science of Relationships has a great new post on what women wear and how they may be perceived by men on a first date.

Definitely worth a look:

It probably won’t shock you to hear that psychologists have discovered that how much skin your outfit reveals influences what others think of you. Perhaps, back in high school, your dad told you that you were not allowed to leave the house with that mini skirt on. (Or was that only me?) Long before high school you probably knew that what others wore and how they looked influenced what you thought of them.

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

Study debunks stereotype that men think about sex all day long

Have you ever heard that the average man thinks about sex every seven seconds? We (and most people) have, which is why we were so interested in this recent post from Science Daily. The reality (according to a study in the Journal of Sex Research) turns out to be quite different from this old piece of folk-wisdom. True, men did think about sex more often than women, but both think about it exponentially less frequently than we commonly believe.

Check it out:

Men may think about sex more often than women do, but a new study suggests that men also think about other biological needs, such as eating and sleep, more frequently than women do, as well. And the research discredits the persistent stereotype that men think about sex every seven seconds, which would amount to more than 8,000 thoughts about sex in 16 waking hours.

Read the rest of the post at the original site, and be sure to visit ScienceDaily: Relationship News!

Is a stranger trustworthy? You’ll know in 20 seconds

Here is a really cool (or possibly scary) thing: we can judge certain characteristics of people rather accurately based solely on our brief first impressions. This is by no means a new idea. College students have been able to predict the ratings of professors from 10 second video clips of their lectures (without sound, no less). A new study actually suggests that some of our first impressions, such as the trustworthyness, kindness, and compassion of others, may have a basis in our DNA.

Have a look at the original article from Science Daily:

There’s definitely something to be said for first impressions. New research suggests it can take just 20 seconds to detect whether a stranger is genetically inclined to being trustworthy, kind or compassionate. The findings reinforce that healthy humans are wired to recognize strangers who may help them out in a tough situation. They also pave the way for genetic therapies for people who are not innately sympathetic, researchers said.

Read the rest of the post at the original site, and be sure to visit ScienceDaily: Relationship News!

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.

How Can I Meet Mr./Mrs. Right?

Science of Relationships has a great post on the characteristics of places where people tend to meet each other. This is a topic we’ve been thinking about for a while at Interpersonal Science: the media and popular culture tell us that people meet in bars, but how often does this really happen? This post suggests that three characteristics (repeated exposure, similar interests, and shared social networks) play an important role. And what about bars? They aren’t by default likely to have these three things working in your favor (sure you can find a bar for folks with similar interests, like a sports bar that supports your local team, but this is an exception, not the rule).

Have a look at the original post and give these three characteristics a thought next time you are looking for a new girlfriend/boyfriend:

There are lots of places where you can find a partner. Online, offline, next door, or at a bar, coffee shop, supermarket, etc. etc. Really the list is endless. A lot of sites will try to give a “top ten list of where individuals meet.” But really, it isn’t the place that matters but rather the interpersonal dynamics. So here are the top 3 basic principles at play during initial encounters. If you have these, it you can meet someone anywhere.

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