A new paper from the Journal of Consumer Research has distilled coolness down to this definition: "A subjective, positive trait perceived in people, brands, products, and trends that are autonomous in an appropriate way."
"Autonomous in an appropriate way" is a really difficult way of saying "doing whatever you want without bothering anyone" — that last part is why the guy who sings to himself on the subway is not cool.
But, it's not enough to do whatever you want. There has to be a norm to depart from or an idea to rage against. If there isn't a justifiable reason to deviate, you'll just look like a jerk or a crazy person and definitely not cool. Take school dress codes — there's nothing quite like the daily thrill of subverting them. However, one study showed students ads and asked them to break or follow a dress code. And, while some kids were then told the code was invented to honor a dictator, others heard it was to honor war veterans. Not surprisingly, it only seemed cool to break it when the reason behind it was absurd.
This finding is useful for marketers trying to get young people to do anything — though very bad news for anyone hoping for an after-school special revival. The paper recommends aligning the behavior they want to change with something, or someone, in the mainstream that is viewed negatively. So, the only one we're really worried about is whatever down-on-his-luck celebrity is about to become a cautionary tale. Any takers? (The Atlantic)