'Being Cool' Not What It Used to Be

The perception of "cool" has changed in recent years.

July 6, 2012— -- Ilan Dar-Nimrod listens to the classics-the Beatles, the Doors, Genesis. He is a voracious reader, with some of his favorite authors being Kafka, Murakami and Vonnegut. He used to own a motorcycle. In his free time, he goes backpacking through Europe, Asia or Latin America. He's friendly and laughs easily, but, as a scientist and academic, he has chops in the brain department.

According to research published in the Journal of Individual Differences for which Dar-Nimrod was the lead author, he epitomizes the modern-day perception of what it takes to be "cool."

Researchers from the University of Rochester Medical Center surveyed nearly 1,000 mostly college-aged students on their perception of cool. The three-year study found that more people believe a person is cool when they are friendly, warm, smart and trendy. Today people are less apt to respond to the James Dean-style of aloof coolness that was once so dreamy in yesteryears.

"Even if you hear how the word 'cool' is being used to describe things today, it's not being used to reflect counterculture rebellion, it's being used to described as a way of saying, 'I like you.'"

The researchers acknowledged that the study population is limited in scope, since it consisted of "mostly educated, young, Canadian, ethnically white and Asian, [and] predominantly female" in British Columbia, Canada.

This is important to note because the idea of "cool" does not necessarily translate between different types of people, experts said.

"Coolness is a concept that is historically wedded to notions of race, socioeconomic status, and rebellion- each of which is anchored in broader social hierarchies and norms that are certainly temporally, culturally, and even contextually variant," said Kevin Lewis, a doctoral student in Harvard's Department of Sociology.

The leather jacketed, cigarette smoking, rebel to authority is still perceived as somewhat cool, researchers said, but the nice guy next door now reigns coolest, according to the study surveys. Those who are talented and smart and striving to succeed also rated high up on the cool scale. Even nerdiness, which was once the antithesis of "cool," has changed its reputation. Geeks are now "under that counterculture umbrella of edginess" Dar-Nimrod said.

Researchers said the findings have real-world implications in changing the way society perceives unhealthy behaviors, like smoking, drinking and drug use, which used to fall under the general perception of a rebellious "cool."

Still, what gives? Why is Slickster Danny Zuko from "Grease" out and Justin Bieber, the popstar with the boy-next-door charm in?

"[Being] cool by definition requires a reference point-- what is boring, normal, or even uncool," said Lewis. "The day culture stops changing is the day our notions of coolness will also be frozen in time."