The Autonomy of Cool


When the question of what makes something cool comes up, responses range from a specific quality of the thing, person or brand in question, to a response about the “tribe” that subscribes to it, to hedging the question entirely, preferably in French: it’s that je ne sais quoi. None of these are wrong—after all, coolness is in the eye of the beholder—but they’re not particularly illuminating either.


So what’s the coolest band, person, or brand you can think of? What makes it cool to you? When asked this question myself, a favorite band came to mind, and pressed to explain why I thought they were so cool, my only response was “because they really do their own thing, but they’re not jerks about it.” Yes, you can take that one to the bank. Still, it’s a tough question.


People who research what makes things cool (yes, they’re out there) disagree on what that je ne sais quoi really is. But one thing that stands out is a tension between the coolness of standing out (a la James Dean) and the coolness of fitting in (think Mean Girls). It’s the same tension that exists between people who like a band “before it was cool” and those who discover that band later.


What’s at stake in this equation is autonomy, or the adherence to internal motivations regardless of norms and expectations. It’s not simply about discovering something first, it’s about affiliating with a brand/band/idea in the absence of broad momentum of acceptance. Researchers Caleb Warren and Margaret Campbell wanted to test this idea more directly, and decided to focus on autonomy: it can be low or high, but it seemed to factor into almost any definition of coolness they came across.


Warren and Campbell’s series of experiments yielded a number of interesting results, but what stood out for us were two conclusions in particular. First, that coolness of products depends on divergence from a norm (ie, upon autonomy). In one experiment, people were asked to rate the coolness of a traditional water bottle and a bottle redesign either by Starbucks or by Sabbarrio (a fictitious brand). It turned out people preferred the design that didn’t conform to a product norm regardless of the popularity of the brand. This makes sense: things that diverge from a norm (like Fiji or Smart Water bottle shapes) but not in a way that affects functionality (those terrible bubble gum cylinders that take up way too much space) are “cool.”


This is a useful observation, but what puts it into perspective is the how the degree of autonomy affects coolness, from low autonomy (eg, mass market) to bounded (eg, craft or niche) to extreme (eg, avant-garde or sub-niche). Back to the always-contentious issue of musical coolness, when participants were asked to read three interviews with actual up-and-coming bands, most of the questions were answered in earnest by the band. The question of what motivated their song-writing, however, was controlled (with the bands’ permission) to fall into one of these three levels of autonomy.


For low autonomy, the band explained they were trying to write super popular hits that everyone would love, bounded autonomy had the band writing what came naturally to them with an eye to what their audiences liked, and extreme autonomy had the band intentionally disregarding others’ opinions of them in pursuit of novelty. Participants were divided into thirds, and the bands took turns having low, bounded, and extreme autonomy in the three sets of interviews.


Participants were then asked to evaluate the coolness of the bands, and to choose 4 songs to download from a selection of songs from all three bands. As it turned out, whichever band demonstrated bounded autonomy was rated the coolest and had more songs downloaded. The low autonomy band had the fewest downloads and the least attributed coolness, with the extreme autonomy band in the middle. So different is cool, disregard is less cool, and same old is downright uncool.


As we stated in the beginning, coolness is largely in the eye of the beholder, but it’s not entirely relative. While most people found middling autonomy the most appealing, the results showed that those with strong countercultural leanings were more accepting of high autonomy compared to those with a more traditional perspective. But Warren and Campbell also showed that autonomy only increased coolness in appropriate situations. Going against the prevalence of Bud Light by picking up a case of Natty Bo is appropriate and cool, whereas countering the norm of memorializing fallen troops is decidedly “not cool.” Maybe the closest equation we have for now is Coolness = Appropriate Autonomy. So basically, cool people and brands do their own thing, but they’re not jerks about it.