How Capitalism Created 'Cool'

Two Caltech brain researchers discuss why vintage T-shirts and Beats By Dre headphones make us feel so, well, cool.

Stephane Mahe/Reuters

When I was in middle school, there was a year when I was obsessed with jeans from The Gap. (If you weren't alive or don't remember the 90s, The Gap was super cool then.) Everyone at school was talking about them and wearing them—and eventually I got a pair too. It's one of my earliest memories of "cool" consumption.

Research into conspicuous consumption has come a long way since those days, with economists, marketing professors, psychologists, and neuroscientists all applying their methods to understanding what it is about owning certain products that makes us feel so, well, cool.

Steven Quartz, a philosopher and neuroscientist at Caltech, along with Anette Asp, a political scientist and neuromarketer, investigate the underlying neurological and cultural processes that play a part in our decisions as consumers in their new book, Cool: How the Brain’s Hidden Quest for Cool Drives Our Economy and Shapes Our World. They draw on research from the Social Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory at Caltech (where Quartz is the director, and Asp a former project manager) and detail how our drive for "cool" and social status informs the way we spend money and the things we choose to buy.

I recently spoke with Quartz and Asp about their new book, and why we should care about how the concept of cool influences human beings. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Bourree Lam: How did the book project come about for the both of you?

Steven Quartz: It actually originated in a query from Lisa Ling, who at the time was working at MSNBC on a show and was doing an episode on cool. We were working on a project at Caltech on decision-making and the brain, and thought it was an intriguing possibility.

Anette Asp: What is so interesting with neuromarketing and brain scanning is that the sky is the limit. It really has endless possibilities and we wanted to see if we could measure responses to cool products. And of course it was possible.

Lam: What is neuroeconomics and neuromarketing?

Quartz: Neuroeconomics was developed at Caltech around 2000, in part because we had an outstanding group of behavioral economists who had developed very sophisticated ways to investigate how people actually make economic decisions (in contrast to much of traditional economics which uses formal theories of optimal behavior). When we built an imaging center, it was an organic process of translating these behavioral studies to the brain and to investigate especially the unconscious processes that weren’t observable or measurable with the behavioral studies. Neuromarketing was the application of these studies to product testing, development, and consumer preferences in real situations.

Asp: Neuroeconomics is a way to answer questions about how the brain processes decisions involving everything from risk-taking, risk aversion, trust in other people, and so on. Neuromarketing on the other hand focuses on how we perceive brands, products, and status signaling objects.

Both tell us about the unconscious processes that a survey or focus group wouldn’t reveal. Often people don’t dare to reveal that they prefer Gucci, when the focus group is arranged by Prada.

Lam: How exactly do you conduct neuroeconomics research?

Quartz: We use the tasks that behavioral economics has developed—to see how people think about others during social exchange or strategic interactions—and further uses brain imaging to measure how the brain represents these values. We can look at very basic decisions like a simple gamble to very complex ones, like how people represent the value of products.

Asp: What is essential is that it captures emotional reactions in real-time as opposed to general rationalizations. When it comes to trust for example, it’s not always about how one might optimize the pay-off.

Lam: One question about brain imaging studies is that the sample sizes tend to be quite small. Is that a legitimate problem?

Quartz: We’ve done some studies with large sample sizes for imaging (upwards of 100 subjects), but the sample size issue really depends on what the question is. In neuromarketing it’s very difficult to get representation of the country, say, if you want demographic groups, age, gender, geographical location, etc. But if you want to see how a certain design affects the brain, or if the brain processes unconscious information about a product, that can be done with relatively small samples sizes.

Lam: What are some of the myths and assumptions about consumerism, and how does your research on cool consumption challenge that?

Quartz: There are four especially damaging myths about consumerism. First, that it doesn’t make us happy. Second, that it relies on instilling false needs in us because it’s contrary to our real nature. Third, that it erodes public life.  Fourth, that it’s primarily about “stuff.”

The first myth depended on something called the Easterlin Paradox. In 1974, Richard Easterlin reported that although richer people were happier than poorer people in the same country, people in wealthier countries were no happier than those in poorer ones. The implication was that happiness depended on relative income—how we stack up against the proverbial Joneses. But new studies question whether there ever was an Easterlin Paradox: The people of sub-Saharan Africa are not as satisfied with their lives as people in India, who are not as satisfied with their lives as the people of France or Denmark. There’s a global relationship between income and life satisfaction that shows no sign of a satiation point.

Our research show why the second myth is false. By examining how the brain responds to “cool” products, we discovered that they help fulfill a basic human need: to be recognized and respected by others. Our brains contain what’s basically a “social calculator” that keeps track of how we think other people are thinking about us—we feel its results as social emotions like pride and shame. Today, it’s typically called “social status,” but that has lingering negative connotations. We found that products are basically extensions of ourselves that reflect who we are—we use them to bond with others who share the same values. Doing this successfully was key to survival throughout human evolutionary history—you really needed allies, friends, and partners to survive. There are lots of ways to gain status—it’s what even drives some Westerners to join ISIS—but integrating our need for status into the economy was, in our opinion, an enormously important feat. It allows the ways to gain status to expand over time, and it shows why the third myth is false—we use products to create lifestyles and community. That also reveals why the fourth myth is false. Consumerism isn’t just about materialism. We use products socially—music is a great example. Look at all the lifestyles arranged around various musical tastes.

Asp: One example of a myth is that expensive equals cool. Apple products are, today, expensive because they’re seen as cool; they’re not cool because they’re expensive (which is still the case for many luxury goods).

Lam: How does the brain perceive and respond to “cool”ness?

Quartz: The brain processes cool in terms of its impact on our social identity. Cool is more about the social life of products than their functional properties. It can fetch a premium (Apple is a good example), but it doesn’t have to be expensive—finding a retro shirt in a thrift shop can also be cool. Specifically, we found that it impacts a part of the brain known as the medial prefrontal cortex. This is where our social identity and our social calculator is located.

Asp: I think it’s really fascinating how cool is so closely related to our sense of self.

Lam: Does that, in turn, affect what we buy?

Quartz: Yes, we buy products that reflect who we are and how we want others to think of us as well. We do so because the medial prefrontal cortex houses our affiliative impulses and consumption taps into our social life and most basic social instincts.

Asp: Certainly. We consume these cool products to get higher social status, and the effect boosts the way we feel about ourselves. Higher social status; happier human being.

Lam: Is that why status seeking and Darwinian competition are both related to how we buy things?

Quartz: We definitely compete for social status, but traditional accounts stop at the idea that we just compete for its own sake—trying to outdo each other. This is captured in theories that talk about the need for “distinction” and building fences between people. But we don’t compete just for it’s own sake. We compete to cooperate. That might sound like a minor difference, but it makes all the difference. Darwin also emphasized “social selection,” the idea that our fitness depends on the quality of our friendships, alliances, and relationships. So we compete to get social partners who we then cooperate with. That’s one reason why people are so obsessed with celebrities—our brains see them as great potential social partners—they are connected, influential, and powerful. We also see people who use certain products to reflect their lifestyle as desirable social partners.

Lam: Why did you look at the history of "cool"ness for your book? And what is "DotCool"?

Quartz: We were interested in why cool emerged in the 1950s. Why were people getting so rebellious during one of the greatest periods of economic expansion in our history? It doesn’t make any sense in some ways. People were enjoying higher standards of living, more discretionary income, so why start rebelling? We saw that it was because the competition for the limited status of a traditional social hierarchy was getting too intense. It was the right conditions for the rebel instinct to ignite, and it started to drive consumption through rejecting the traditional routes to status and creating cool new lifestyles.

In looking at the rise of cool consumption, we found that by the early 90s “rebel cool” had really reshaped the social landscape. The social hierarchy of the 1950s was increasingly fragmented, and the creative energy cool unleashed had helped create an emerging “knowledge society.” In 1994, this really took off with the emergence of the Internet. We coined the term “DotCool” to reflect the changes in cool that were taking shape. It was no longer about rejecting the stifling conformity of the 1950s. The most crucial difference was that work no longer meant having to give up your individuality to become the bureaucratic “Organization Man.” Work started to be cool. And it rewarded innovation and unconventionality. So, cool shifted to reflect the values that are important in a knowledge economy—the ability to learn, to be unconventional and innovative.

Lam: So the notion of cool is an ever-evolving one. But what if a person doesn’t care about being cool, or do we all care unconsciously? In other words, is it possible to be a social animal without being a consumer if all these things are related?

Quartz: We found that there are a lot of individual differences in terms of how people respond to “cool” products. Some people are more motivated by the negative emotions associated with being uncool—their brains “repel” at the uncool rather than being motivated primarily by the cool. Others don’t respond as much to either cool or uncool products. They buy things for their practicality. Still others rebel against consumerism itself—but being an anti-consumerism is different from being someone who just doesn’t care. The irony of anti-consumers is that they often reflect their distaste for consumerism through their consumption—they don’t wear generic clothing simply because it gets the job done. They wear it as a rebellion against consumerism, so they end up being anti-consumer consumers!

Lam: Right, that’s the whole idea behind “normcore.”

Quartz: Yes, I love the quote from one of the "normcore" followers who said it was “exhaustingly plain”!

Lam: What is the coolest thing you bought recently, and what does it say about you?

Quartz: Well, I just bought a Scott Foil bike frame—it’s a pretty cool bike, and that reflects the fact that a lot of my own identity centers around cycling, which I’ve done for a long time.

Asp: It must have been concert tickets to my favorite Swedish rock artist, Joakim Thåström. I like his music so much that I had to buy two concert tickets, two nights in a row. This guy certainly represents rebel cool in his way of paving new ground. He started off in a punk band in the 70s and now he’s continuing as a solo artist with more of a rock and industrial sound.