Do We Make Things “Cool” by Mistakenly Assuming That Others Find These Things Cool?

Most of the time, yes. There are two parts to coolness. The first, and largest, is the shared social reality of what is desirable and popular. This type of cool is not an individual notion; it is most stable and real when we think about what others might find cool. So we do collectively create what is cool, not by shifting our perceptions of what we think is cool, but by groups gradually shifting their perceptions of what people generally think is cool. I can like milkshakes, but for them to be cool, I have to think about whether the group thinks they’re cool. Bill Gates knew that Steve Jobs’ iPod would be declared cool once enough people bought it. The fact that we create cool socially means that we do create cool by assuming what others think.

There is a more fixed part of cool. A second part that art theorists have known for a while is that cool is a rebellious and aloof attitude toward authority. There’s a good chance that we can’t redefine that sense of cool.

Should we worry about cool? Not necessarily, but if you care about it, you need to recognize that it is a perception of what groups think, not of what we each individually think.

Jonathan Gerber is a professor of psychology at Gordon College.

Category: Q&A

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