Being regarded as cool is something that you might desire, but is this a quality you really have control over? New research suggests that there is a strong personality component to being, as well as being considered, cool. University of Sydney (Australia) psychologists Ilan Dar-Nimrod and colleagues (2018) put the coolness criteria to the test in their study of the traits that contribute to this seemingly desirable quality.
Before we get any further, however, you might want to reflect on what you think contributes to the quality of being cool. Who are the really cool people in your own life? Is it the friend who just always seems to have control over her emotions, regardless of how dire a situation may be? Is it the coworker who collects an avid crowd of listeners in the coffee break room? Perhaps it’s an in-law whose every post on social media is commented on by tens, if not hundreds, of followers. It might even be a celebrity whose claim to fame is a distinctive and enviable quirkiness. As much as you’d like to be like them, you fear that it’s just not within you to be that admirable individual with all that apparent popularity and perhaps even a smug sense of self-satisfaction. However, coolness isn’t an absolute quality. As Dar-Nimrod et al. note, what’s cool now may not have been cool even a few years ago. For example, it’s cool to stand out on social media, but it’s also cool to be a member of nerd culture. This further complicates the situation because you can’t put a definite finger on the coolness quotient as it applies to those near and far from your social circles.
The Australian authors distinguish the two empirical approaches to coolness as focusing either on the evaluative qualities that lead people to be perceived as cool by others or the qualities on the inside you project to cause others to see you as cool. The evaluative qualities, the ones seen by others as cool, can be divided into originality, attractiveness, and the appeal a person has to a certain subculture. The personality traits that you possess which correspond to being perceived in this manner are divided into two categories. The first is “cachet coolness,” or the socially desirable traits of being friendly, agreeable, and competent. Directly opposed to these traits are those that fit into the category of “contrarian coolness,” or the tendency to be detached, rebellious, and a bit rough around the edges. Dar-Nimrod and his fellow researchers focused their work on these two personality trait dimensions via a questionnaire study based on the Five Factor Model.
The primarily undergraduate sample (a perfect population for studying coolness) completed a measure developed when Dar-Nimrod was at the University of Rochester (Dar-Nimrod et al., 2012). Consisting of a set of 14 self-rated trait terms, the scale was found to split into the 2 dimensions corresponding to cachet and contrarian coolness categories. Included in the cachet ratings were terms such as caring, ambitious, warm, friendly, charismatic, attractive, confident, and trendy. The contrarian coolness items included being rebellious, sarcastic, aggressive, detached, adventurous (thrill-seeking), unconventional, and selfish. Dar-Nimrod and his coauthors believed that cachet coolness “would correlate positively with every explicit measure that is construed as positive in our society” (p. 2), a pretty strong prediction, and that it would also correlate with high self-esteem. Additionally, the cachet-cool types should also be high in a desire to be seen positively by others, or social desirability. Conversely, those high in contrarian coolness should, the researchers proposed, be open to new experiences, high in self-esteem, and relatively insensitive to failure or external judgments. They should also, according to theory, be high in emotional stability perhaps again reflecting this imperviousness to the opinions of others.
In addition to completing measures of perceived coolness and the Five Factor personality traits, participants rated themselves on their primary “action orientation,” meaning their ability to apply themselves to goals. People with a strong action orientation, according to the authors, are able to “marshal their cognitive resources in service of a goal. By contrast, state-oriented individuals are more easily distracted. The action-oriented are also less deterred by negative feedback and pursue their goals without stopping. A questionnaire measure of self-esteem asked participants to rate themselves using a fairly standard set of self-descriptors. To get at the “implicit” form of self-esteem, or the form of self-regard that people might not outwardly ascribe to, the Australian researchers used the rather unusual (but logical) measure of signature size. In keeping with the confidential nature of the students’ participation, the signature was measured from the consent form which then was stored separately from the other data. The bigger the signature, the higher the implicit self-esteem. By the way, how big is your signature?
The findings from the coolness questionnaire analysis replicated the previous study on the coolness questionnaire itself by showing it separates into the two distinct factors predicted by the authors. Moving on from there, Dar-Nimrod et al. then demonstrated how the two varieties of coolness related to those personality traits. People high in cachet coolness, as the authors predicted, were also far more extraverted than everyone else, open to new experiences, and then high on the other desirable attributes of the Five Factor traits; namely, conscientiousness, emotional stability, and agreeableness. Their explicit self-esteem was high as was their action orientation.
Let’s not discount the benefits of contrarian coolness, though. Individuals receiving high scores on this quality were also more extraverted (though not as much as the cachet cool), and they also had high scores on emotional stability and openness to experience. As you might imagine, though, they were not high on conscientiousness or agreeableness but not unusually low, either. Their action orientation was of the state variety, involving greater sensitivity to failure rather than the ability to apply themselves to goals. Their self-esteem was high, though not as high as the cachet-cool, but their signatures were larger indicating an inwardly high sense of self-esteem in the view of the authors.
In summarizing their findings, the authors maintain that the study of coolness is more important than ever given the role of social media in contemporary life which influences “people’s worldviews, identities, and attitudes” (p. 5). If in fact being high on coolness can help bolster your identity, this means that you may want to work on some of those personality traits that are associated with the favorable pole of being friendly, open, self-confident, and goal-oriented. If contrarian coolness appeals to your rebellious nature, this can also promote positive self-esteem as long as that desire to live more on the fringe doesn’t slip into true personality instability and self-doubts. Look at the people you admire for their coolness and that might give you insights into how you can tweak your personality to increase your attractiveness to others.
There are more ways to seek fulfillment than to strive to be cool. The Australian study suggests, however, that what makes people cool may also help their relationships, self-esteem, and ability to pursue goals. Give coolness a chance, and you might surprise yourself with the results.