What’s cool? Usually it’s a group decision

Jonathan Gerber, standing near Frost Hall, is an assistant professor of psychology at Gordon College in Wenham.
Jonathan Gerber, standing near Frost Hall, is an assistant professor of psychology at Gordon College in Wenham.
Photos by Lisa Poole for The Boston Globe

WENHAM — Just exactly what is cool?

“It’s a hard question,” said Jonathan Gerber, assistant professor of psychology at Gordon College. “It depends on who you ask, right?”

A 7-year-old can show you the cool way to drink from a straw. Conor Maynard? Ask a teen. A baby boomer can Google Arthur Fonzarelli on YouTube. His father may dig out a poster of James Dean. A fan of American jazz will slip Miles Davis onto a record player.

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It’s an ever-shifting aesthetic, but one with value in American society, said Gerber, who has recently published the study, “Measuring the existence of cool using an extended Social Relations Model,” in the online PsychNology Journal. Coauthored by Carly Geiman, a student at the Wenham college, it seeks to measure cool in localized social networks, and draws the conclusion that cool is not a personality trait but more the distributed property of a network: a group perception.

Gerber has found, “The amount of agreement on what is cool doubles when you move to what other people think is cool.”

Therefore, cool is most easily identified — “most stable,” in Gerber’s words — when gauging the perception of others.

“We have to separate out what I think is cool from what other people think is cool,” Gerber said, using his own recent experience as an explanation.

“This morning I drove to work in my Pokemon T-shirt,” said Gerber, a third-year faculty member who grew up in Australia. “I like Pokemon, but Pokemon are not cool at the moment. To a 6-year-old, Pokemon is still cool, but when you’re in college, it’s sort of a niche thing. In any class I run, there’s one person who likes Pokemon apart from me.

“Why it’s cool for a 6-year-old to like Pokemon is that there’s general perception among 6-year-olds that other 6-year-olds will think that Pokemon is cool, and that’s where cool actually is, which is what our paper is trying to show.“

Andy Warhol became famous as a pop artist not only because his work was interesting, but partly because “he built up a consensus of people around him who said he was cool.”

Most studies on the subject come from marketing experts, but Gerber’s is one in a small body of research in the field of social psychology.

The researchers conducted a study of 47 Gordon students, putting them in groups of 10 to 13, letting them interact, and then asking two questions: How cool they personally thought each participant was (personal cool), and how cool they thought the group found each participant (group cool). On a scale of 1 to 7, students anonymously rated the others in their group. Then Gerber tallied the data and concluded that cool is defined in groups.

“There’s a big difference between me knowing something is cool and knowing what others think is cool, or at least having a reasonable guess,” Gerber said.

The study asked students to judge other students, while also asking for definitions of what society thought is cool, and what they as individuals thought is cool. Geiman, the senior who coauthored the paper, said some students were initially uncomfortable at being asked to judge others, and that the researchers tried to keep the mood light.

She was not surprised that perception of what society thinks differed from the qualities most important to individuals.

“For society’s definition of cool, a lot of them focused on attractiveness and style, just appearance,” she said, “and for their personal definitions of cool, a lot of them focused on ‘They’re friendly, easy to get along with, funny . . . ’ more interpersonal communication.”

Two-thirds of students said that society was focused on attractiveness, she said, but only one-10th of students considered that in their own personal definition.

Ultimately, the study confirmed much of what Gerber and Geiman already knew: that cool is real and yet elusive, and ever-changing.

Gerber noted that Davis, linked forever to cool jazz, in his later years moved into other genres of music with less critical success. Dean retained his cool in large part because he died young. The Fonz definitively jumped the shark.

Those who write about cool emphasize how elusive it is, and how frequently it changes, said Gerber, who said he was initially surprised, “that there was any consensus at all.”

The paper concludes that, “If we want to find coolness, it may be necessary to search for it not in objects but in the perceptions of others. Not in the speaker, but in our view of the receivers of the message. This is where cool has most stability, and it is where language might ordinarily be said to exist.”