Science Explains What it Means to be “Cool”

What makes someone or something “cool?”

Even defining it is a challenge. Wikipedia’s entry on the subject provides some cultural and historical context, and a definition that can serve as a decent starting point:

“…an admired aesthetic of attitude, behavior, comportment, appearance and style, influenced by and a product of the Zeitgeist.”


However, the entry continues:

“Because of the varied and changing connotations of cool, as well its subjective nature, the word has no single meaning.”


This does not mean that coolness is an intractable concept, but rather, that it is a complex one.

As with many things, science provides us with some interesting insights.



Creatures that live in the wild and interact with natural environments develop a set of adaptive thoughts and behaviors that confer a survival advantage.

In captive or domesticated creatures, these adaptations may be partially or entirely absent. Hence, it would make sense for evolution to favor those attracted to natural environments because it affords greater opportunity to develop adaptations. This could potentially explain why many aspects of nature—breathtaking vistas, animals, certain patterns or symmetries—just seem so cool.

But why has evolution favored humans with “higher” motivations (attraction to things such as music and art) in addition to more fundamental motivations (desire for things such as food and sex)? One theory suggests that it stems from this same basic phenomenon described above. As the theory goes, adaptive thoughts and behaviors are developed with the help of reward systems in the brain that respond to parsimony—the “Ah-Ha!” moments that occur when important adaptive discoveries are made. It could be that discovering a cool new song is rewarding in the same way as something more basic, like foraging and finding a cool new source of food.



What makes certain brands, products, or services cool?

Research on perceptions of fashion apparel suggests two basic dimensions of coolness:

  • Hedonic coolness: Cool because it generates positive emotion.
  • Utilitarian coolness: Cool because it helps achieve a goal.

In other words, cool fashion can either help make people feel a certain way, or it can help people to achieve specific goals.


Research on perceptions of technology products suggests three basic dimensions of coolness:

  • Originality
  • Attractiveness
  • Subcultural appeal

Technology can be cool because it is new and original, or because it has an appealing design. However, this research also suggests that such dimensions alone are not sufficient—new technology products are only cool if they also allow the user to express their uniqueness and identity.



What makes a person cool?

Research suggests that there are actually two things that are largely unrelated.

When asked to describe what makes a person cool, the descriptions are often things that others would find desirable and agreeable. For example, a cool person might be described as popular, friendly, or talented.

However, being cool is more complicated than simply doing or being what other people want. In fact, a second dimension of coolness is based largely on not doing or being what other people want. For example, a cool person might be described as nonconformist, rebellious, or tough.


Cool people are what other people want them to be, and/or they are not.

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