Toward a Universal Theory of 'Cool'

The concept of "cool" seems to resist definition. In a paper published this week, two business and psychology professors just defined it.
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What makes things cool? What penumbral principle explains not only the marketing campaigns of Harley Davidson, Apple, and Dos Equis, but also the appeal of cowboys, James Dean, and Jennifer Lawrence?

A new paper in the Journal of Consumer Research takes a stab at answering what might be an unanswerable question by studying how brands and companies become cool in the eyes of consumers. And, to my surprise, it's decently plausible.

To understand their theory of cool, compare it to another possibly undefinable concept: humorWhat makes something funny? Plato and Aristotle offered what we now call the Superiority Theory. Basically, we laugh at other people's misfortunes, or when we feel superior. This theory explains physical humor, most of Family Guy, and a joke like this:

A woman gets on a bus with her baby. The bus driver says: ''Ugh, that's the ugliest baby I've ever seen!'' The woman walks to the rear of the bus and sits down, fuming. She says to a man next to her: ''The driver just insulted me!'' The man says: ''You go up there and tell him off. Go on, I'll hold your monkey for you.''

But Superiority Theory doesn't do much to explain why we recognize other jokes as jokes. For example: "There are two fish in a tank; one says 'How do you drive this thing?'" Puns are funny (some of them, anyway, theoretically) for reasons besides superiority. They need a broader theory. As Shane Snow explained in the New Yorker, academics are coming around to a more sophisticated idea called Benign Violation.

Benign violation means your expectations are subverted—obvious jokes aren't funny—in a way that poses no threat or sadness to the audience. "A priest and a rabbi walk into a bar and order a beer" isn't a joke; "a priest and a rabbi walk into a bar and die right there on the floor" isn't a joke; but "a priest and a rabbi walk into a bar—ouch!" is recognized as a joke (let's ignore its quality) because it subverts expectations in a way that doesn't feel menacing. Snow writes:

Benign Violation explained why the unexpected sight of a friend falling down the stairs (a violation of expectations) was funny only if the friend was not seriously injured (a benign outcome). It explained Jerry Seinfeld’s comedic formula of pointing out the outrageous things (violation) in everyday life (benign), and Sarah Silverman’s hilarious habit of rendering off-color topics (violation) harmless (benign) in her standup routines. It explained puns (benign violations of linguistic rules) and tickling (a perceived physical threat with no real danger).

Like humor and beauty, coolness seems to defy definition. The literature tells us that coolness is subjective rather than universal (is U2 cool?), and we know that it changes over time (is smoking cool?). But a new paper by Caleb Warren and Margaret C. Campbell applies a more constrictive definition that proves surprisingly workable: "Coolness is a subjective, positive trait perceived in people, brands, products, and trends that are autonomous in an appropriate way."

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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