Are Single People Cool?

Single people are way cooler than married people, right? To answer this question, Peter turns to Caleb Warren, who has developed “the” theory of coolness. In this week’s bonus material, Peter presents Caleb some cool people, and Caleb uses his theory to explains what makes them cool.

Listen to Episode #28 here


Are Single People Cool?

I’ve launched my book, Shtick to Business, right in the middle of the pandemic. With the book promotion slowing down, I’m turning more attention to focus on Solo. Do you want to help? First, I want to get the community going. Please sign up on the Solo podcast page at PeterMcGraw.org. I’m going to be hosting some live Zoom events so people can get to know each other, I can get some feedback and we can talk about how it’s going. Second, is there an expert or remarkable single person whom I should talk to? Bonus points if that person is LA-based. Third, can you help get the word out? We’re off to a great start. The podcast has more than 20,000 listens with almost no promotion, just through word of mouth, so please keep telling the remarkable singles in your life.

This episode’s guest is a star academic who I’ve been working with for years. His name is Caleb Warren. He’s been my co-creator of the Benign Violation Theory. However, we don’t talk about comedy. Instead, we discuss what makes things cool as he has developed the Theory of Coolness. In particular, we talk about what makes a single person cool. I won’t give away the secret here. If you stick around to the end for the bonus material, I present him some cool people and he explains what makes them cool. I hope you enjoy it. Let’s get started.

My guest is Caleb Warren. Caleb thinks, writes and sometimes teaches as an Associate Professor in the Marketing Department at the University of Arizona. Caleb teaches Consumer Behavior and Digital Marketing, but he’s most interested in explaining why and when people respond positively to behaviors that part from the norm. In his spare time, he writes and performed songs about townies and the boys and girls who party with them. Welcome, Caleb.

Thanks for having me here.

The readers should know that you and I have a long relationship for many years. You look exactly the same. I look older. You were a graduate student at the University of Colorado and we ended up doing what has turned into a longstanding research project on what makes things funny. Caleb is the co-creator of the Benign Violation Theory and nowadays is the intellectual lead and force behind any paper that I’ve been publishing in academia.

You’re the reason it’s known anywhere outside of academia.

We complement each other. We’re not here to talk about humor. We’re here to talk about something that Caleb has done that has been a little bit under the radar, unfortunately, but is equally important and interesting, and that is his research on coolness. Let’s step back for a bit and could you give the readers a little bit of an idea? You have carved out this niche in academia about people’s positive responses to non-normative behavior. Maybe define non-normative for people who don’t know that lingo.


When people, culture, societies and even two people in a relationship are able to coordinate their behavior and get along because they agree on certain things, the way the world should work, the way they should interact with one another, that I’m going to call norms. It’s a norm to say hello when you greet someone and they say hi back. It’s a norm to drive on the right side of the street in the US or the left side in England. There are a host of other norms that guide how we speak, talk to one another, dress and engage with other people. They guide almost all of our behaviors. The reason for these norms is it’s much easier to coordinate and cooperate with people. Take driving, for example, if we didn’t know which side of the street to drive on, there would be all kinds of accidents. We know we drive on the right side of the street in the US, we stop at red lights, we let passengers cross in front of us rather than running them over. This makes the driving experience less miserable than it would otherwise be. Most of the time we want other people to follow the norm, but what I’m interested in are the exceptions. When people do something that’s not normative and then others respond in a good way. My work with you is largely about how that can lead to humor. Coolness is another possible outcome or positive reaction to something unusual or abnormal.

A couple of reactions to that is some of these norms are written down like laws about driving and then others are more informal. They’re often unspoken or as my buddy, Jeff Lightener, says, “They’re unwritten rules.” When you speed and get caught, you get a ticket. There’s some sanction.

It’s like if you spit on the sidewalk. In most places, that’s not illegal but others will be like, “What’s wrong with this person?

People will look at you sideways and they mutter under their breath. These are typically socially enforced. As you reflect on your life, you can think of these things, they are most on display when you go to another culture.

Even around a group of people you’re not familiar with. You pay a lot more attention to the norms because most of the time the influence of these norms on our behavior, we don’t recognize it at all. We’ve internalized them to such an extent that when someone says hi to us, we don’t think about what should I do here? The response comes naturally and quickly.

All this a terror around Coronavirus has people reconsidering whether they should be shaking hands and yet shaking hands is such an automatic thing, but it’s hard to override when someone extends their hand. You automatically put it out. This idea that single people are cool I like, but part of that has to be rooted in this notion that there are certain norms, the standard ways of living in the world. For the reader, don’t worry, we’re going to teach you what makes something cool. I have fun bonus material where I’m going to give Caleb some notable cool people and he’s going to tell us why they’re cool. We’re going to do a little bit of dissection here.

The first thing to start with is the idea of coolness as a form of status and how that deviates from the typical form of status. When you were working on your dissertation, I remember reading your proposal. I remember sitting in your proposal defense and you talked about this idea. I love when this happens when someone says something and you immediately go, “I see that, but I never knew that before.” It’s the best part of learning when something gets told to you and it seems self-evident. If you could recreate that magic for me, I’d appreciate it.

I’ll do my best. The original idea with the dissertation, there are two ideas and they’re not all that closely connected. The one Peter is talking about now is how cool is an alternative form of social status. When I read about social status as both an undergraduate and a graduate student, it was often talked about as people become high status or it was usually defined the same as a social class, by having money, by having a job that offers lots of prestige, by having education and following the norms of a society.

It’s what people might call SES or Socio-Economic Status.

That would be income, occupational prestige and education in most measures. What struck me about coolness, one of the things is people appear to be high status. A lot of times these are celebrities or cultural icons, but through a different means. A lot of times it wasn’t because they were educated or had what would be by traditional standards a prestigious job or money. It was because they were carving their own path and doing something different. The original idea I had was that people could become high status by being cool and they would become cool by doing their own thing rather than following the norms. They’ll be showing that they’re autonomous from the norm.

I didn’t end up testing that idea very much, but Silvia Bellezza and her colleagues did a similar thing a few years later and found good support for what they call the Red Sneakers Effect. When a professor goes in front of a university class wearing red sneakers rather than your more normative black dress shoes, the students infer that person has higher status. They showed this also at one of the studies. They’d go to an academic conference and code who’s dressed poorly like jeans and t-shirt as opposed to formal attire. They find that there’s a real correlation there. The people who have higher status are the ones who are flouting the norms, going against the conventions, more likely to wear t-shirts and jeans.

I like that idea in part because one of the neat things about it is you’re seeing this a little bit more than ever now in the digital age. It doesn’t have to be young, but oftentimes when you’re young, there’s this alternative path to status because getting an education and a prestigious job takes time and effort. It’s deliberate and often doesn’t happen until you’re middle-aged. Young people can do it with Instagram.

Especially if you’re looking at education, occupational prestige, and income. All these things take time unless you’re born with income or money. Whereas on the other hand, coolness is quicker. If you do something different or show that you’re someone who doesn’t follow the norms and you’re able to do that in a way that people don’t think you’re a freak, then that will seem cool. That can be fairly quick. If wearing an interesting new fashion or coming up with music that people haven’t heard before or some crazy idea that others see like, “That’s great.” All those things can make a person cool relatively quickly.

How did you get to this idea? How did you decide, “I’m going to study coolness?”

While I was in a marketing PhD program studying consumer behavior, there are all these theories about decision-making and people choose the option that gives them the highest utility. There were information processing theories too that talk about attitudes and things like that. When I looked around me and both my friends and even my own behavior, it seemed like a lot of the times we were listening to music or buying products not because we thought they gave us a lot of utility, but because we thought they were cool.

The utility is an economist’s way of saying a high degree of satisfaction.

It’s a generic form for usefulness. It comes from usefulness, whereas coolness is much more about symbolic value.

Let’s get to the punchline. You didn’t just develop a theory. You did a bunch of tests on this stuff. What is it that makes something someone? It’s typically someone.

It can be a person, a behavior, a product, a brand or a group of people like single people.

Although as we’ll see, not all single people are cool. I hate to let you people down.

Not all of any group of people are cool, but some groups on average are cooler than others. The theory, when I started, I was thinking like, “Being different, being rebellious, being autonomous is cool,” but most of the time it’s not. If I were to start driving my car on the wrong side of the street, people would not think that was cool. They’d be like, “Let’s check him into the mental institution.” There were a lot of writers who said that the way to become cool was to be different, unique or rebellious. When I started testing this with experiments, for example, I would have some small company go to an industry convention and behave like hooligans.

I’d see how cool people think this company is. They didn’t. They thought they were uncool. It wasn’t until I realized that the autonomy, the norm divergence needs to be well-calibrated. You can’t be indiscriminately breaking the rules. You need to break the rules that people think are okay to break. It’s about being different or showing you’re autonomous, but in a way that the audience who’s evaluating you thinks is appropriate. The simplest version is being different in a good way as opposed to being different in a bad way. It can also be a little more complicated than that. By being different or showing that you’re not following others, as long as people see some potential value or opportunity rather than seeing what you’re doing as being harmful like disrupting the social order that you care about. This is more complicated because a lot of times we’re in groups. There are all these different social orders. There are different subcultures within a culture and they all have their own set of norms. If I’m in a punk subculture, then breaking the punk norms might not be cool, but breaking mainstream norms tends to be seen as cool.

I want to recap a few of these things. For the average person and almost everyone who’s reading, this is a brand-new idea. First of all, Caleb is going to use a bunch of music examples because he’s a musician and has, in my opinion, some of the best taste in music that I know in part because he regularly feeds me musicians to listen to and I like them. I like this idea that what makes something cool is this idea of there’s some rebelliousness, deviance, non-normative behavior, but the rules that are being broken are the ones that in some way are okay to break. The breaking may be connected ideally to something that’s potentially valuable or good. The problem with that, especially if you’re trying to be cool versus unintentionally cool, these norms are based upon the group that you’re a part of, the culture that you’re a part of, there are a lot of nuances. Rules differ between groups of people. If I hear you correctly, then the same behavior can be seen as cool from one group of people, but not cool from another group of people, and completely deviant and wrong from yet another group of people.

That’s one of the tricky parts about being cool. It’s hard to be cool to everyone at once because it’s not people have totally different sets of norms. Sometimes people understand the same set of norms but have a different level of tolerance. They’ll have different opinions about how essential or valuable those norms are.

This is reminiscent of the work that we’ve done in humor, which is that the same joke can make one person laugh, another person yawn, and yet another person pounds their fist on the table in anger. Before I ask this question, what else should the readers know or understand about this theory?

It can apply to people, behaviors, brands, products and trends. It depends on whether the object we’re talking about. A person is seen as following the norm. If not, whether that deviation seems appropriate in that it’s good and valuable. It’s something that’s another possibility that might at least not totally disrupt the social order.

Let’s talk through some examples because it’ll help drive home these points. Let’s start with something musical.

How about someone like Bob Dylan who in the early ‘60s started doing folk music with largely somewhat rebellious social messages. He was writing anti-war songs and this was very much at the beginning of the ‘60s counterculture. There is a whole movement of people who were against a lot of what mainstream politicians and the ideal of this cookie-cutter suburb family that commute into some big corporate office and trying to make money. A lot of his messages were against that, but in a way that a growing generation of people saw as valuable. We don’t think we should be going to war all the time and Dylan’s music represented that. Songs like Masters of War and The Times They Are A Changin’ helped illustrate some of these counter-cultural ideals. What happened is that this folk scene became normal. What did Dylan do? He switched to rock and roll. Dylan went electric. That seemed uncool.

He started playing electric guitar. He started playing rock songs. The lyrics became less overtly political. This turned off a lot of his initial supporters. For them, these norm deviations didn’t seem appropriate. For a whole other audience where they were not heavily invested in folk music or these political messages, it seemed cool. It helped move rock and roll in a different direction. Throughout his career, Dylan, whenever he has started to get pigeonholed as this type of person or culture has changed to catch up with him, he’s often pivoted. That helped him maintain a cool image throughout. In the ‘90s when he was starting to be in history textbooks and seen as this emblem of the counterculture, what did Dylan do? He started appearing in advertisements. He’s always showing like, “I am not going to be who you want me to be. I’m going to be my own person,” which is autonomous. If you’re someone who isn’t put off by that particular message, so if you are not a political foci from the early ‘60s, you think that change is cool. If you’re Pete Seeger, then you’re screaming and telling people to unplug the cord so no one can hear his message.

Who’s Pete Seeger?

He was one of the leaders of the early ‘60s folk music protest movement.

I’ve never been a huge Dylan fan because of aesthetics. I don’t enjoy his voice.

That’s something else that potentially makes him cool is he does not have a conventional voice.

What I loved is he won a Nobel Prize for Poetry. They wanted to give him the prize and they couldn’t track him down.

This is recurring. At the height of his popularity in the late ‘60s. He disappeared for a couple of years.

It was great. They couldn’t find him. He finally surfaced.

When he came back, he started writing country music.

We’ll move on to other things, but my example of modern music is Chance the Rapper. For people who don’t know Chance, first of all, check out his music. He’s a Chicago-based rapper and he didn’t sign with a label. The typical grassroots rapper gain stardom is making mixtapes and selling them out of the back of your car. You get discovered and then you get signed by a big label, and then stardom ensues. Chance has resisted that and has found this alternative way to get his music out often by having other big names compliment his work, appear in his songs and so on. That has allowed him to stay away from the mainstream industry.

The other nice example about Chance or the reason Chance is a good example is because he doesn’t just do something totally his own or different. He’s helped grow a community or subculture of like-minded artists and people in Chicago who don’t want that more corporate, cookie-cutter hip hop. In order to be cool, it’s not that you do your own thing and you’d be different. The cool person is not some loner in the woods. He’s someone who changes culture and others follow. Chance is also a good example of that.

I’m going to put forth and ask you about a different type of cool category of person, rather an individual per se, and that is the antihero. I’m obsessed with antiheroes. I had Anthony Jeselnik on my other show, I’m Not Joking. Anthony described himself as having this villain persona. I corrected him, at least in my opinion, I said, “You’re not a villain. You’re not seeking to do evil. You’re an antihero.” It’s my belief that that the best television these days is focused on antiheroes, not heroes, probably ever. There’s something compelling about an antihero. I’m going to give a definition of an antihero and see if you can tell me if it gels with the way you think about that. This is from Writer’s Digest. “An antihero is a protagonist who typically lacks the traditional traits and qualities of a hero such as trustworthiness, courage, and honesty. If he or she were assigned a color, it would be gray. Often an antihero is unorthodox and might flaunt laws or act in a way contrary to society’s standards.” Do you think that antiheroes are cool?

Usually, they’re divisive like most cool figures. Some people will see them as bad, but those who don’t will likely see them as cool because they are regularly breaking conventions. They’re not coming in to save the day and restore the old order. Someone like Don Draper, Al Swearengen, Walter White, these are the antiheroes that come to mind the quickest for me. The scene that stands out for me with Walter White in Breaking Bad was when he made his son drink tequila shots until he threw up or something like that. It’s like, “What is wrong with this person?” Other times when his law-breaking behavior is targeting evil drug cartels and taking them down, you find yourself rooting for him and wanting him to win. That’s when he seems the coolest. When those deviant behaviors are seen as having possibly good ends or at least pointing towards an interesting possibility.

Don Draper is on my list of interesting antiheroes. I’m not much into the Marvel Universe, but I like Deadpool. Deadpool starts and he’s like, “I’m no hero.” He’s super cheeky and funny, but he also does good while also doing bad. He doesn’t fit the normal X-Men. He’s not purely a do-gooder. Selina Meyer in Veep has that element, and almost every gangster in every gangster movie.

They fit mob bosses, most of them. It’s not that they’re indiscriminately breaking the law. They’re often doing that in a way where they’re trying to protect their people. A lot of mafias emerged in places where there was a class of people who were not being protected by traditional law. They came in to say, “The norms of broader society aren’t working for us. We’re going to set up an alternative system.”

They still do have a set of rules that of what to do and what not to do. I love this idea that there’s this optimal level of deviance. You can’t be too far away.

You can see that, especially in fashion and music. Take the dress. There’s the norm for an office job, at least historically. It was wearing a suit and a tie and usually a plain colored suit, black, dark gray, navy blue or something like that. If you were to show up at an office with a slightly different look, maybe an unconventional tie or no tie at all, but you’re still wearing a suit, people might see that as cool. If you show up wearing a giant bunny suit outside of maybe some Silicon Valley startups, people would not see that as cool. They see it as like, “What on earth are you doing?”

David Byrne has the big suit that he wears. There’s a live music movie of Stop Making Sense in one of their concerts. He comes out in this enormous suit.

Musicians on the stage are also given much more leniency for breaking norms and conventions, as are comedians on a stage. They can get away with much edgier jokes than an office worker.

Before we get into single people being cool, why has coolness developed within the culture? Let’s contrast that for a moment with the traditional socioeconomic status and maybe start there with what are the theories about why socioeconomic status is important within most cultures in the world. Why has this alternative path to high status developed?

Some of this is my view and some of this is established and I’m not going to take the time to be specific about what’s what. I’ll give this a shot. It’s not peer-reviewed. Status is a way to reward people who are seen as contributing more to the group. In small groups where everybody knows each other, it’s based on past behaviors and reputations, what people have given back both because they’re more able to contribute more. Maybe they bring in the biggest game in a hunt. They’re able to bring in the biggest game. They then distribute those rewards to others and that helps buy them status. First off, as society grows larger and you stop knowing people individually based on their reputation, they need to use other signals for what someone’s status is.

It starts to depend on the values or ideological system of the larger culture. In Medieval Europe where it was more of a feudal system with Christianity at the top, God was at the top of that status chain. The people who were seen as closest to God, the Lords, the Kings, the clergy were next, and so on down the line. With the Industrial Revolution, money became a lot more important. The people who were seen as being able to generate the most wealth were the ones that were started to be seen as the highest status. What’s happened in the last 30 to 50 years with this creative revolution and the digital revolution, a knowledge economy is that ideas and new ideas, different ideas have started to become more important. The status system motivates people to think differently and behave differently. That helps lead to a term that’s up, creative destruction and innovation. These behaviors are counter normative that society now values.

That makes sense to me, the idea that essentially what a society rewards are the things that end up helping bring strength to the society and help it grow.

It’s easy to see in small groups. Who has the most status on the Lakers? LeBron James and maybe Anthony Davis, the ones who are seen as contributing the most to that team.

To make it more successful in their goal to win a basketball game.

When you start looking at society at a much larger level, then the goal is a little bit less clear. It’s more like what values do you have for society. The people who best embody those values are seen as having higher status. When those values are about making change, being different, being innovative, then the people who embody those values are the ones who are breaking the rules but in a way that others see as valuable. That’s where the coolness comes in.

Entrepreneurs have suddenly become cool.

Entrepreneurs have always been cool. It’s just that nobody valued that coolness or even that innovation as much in the past.

Silicon Valley is the major case study. In order to make especially these technologies that have these huge disruptive effects, you need to fundamentally be thinking about the marketplace and the world differently.

If you look at places where coolness holds the most sway, it’s fashion, music, the arts, technology. These are all the places where change is seen as desirable and valued.

You can’t keep repeating the same thing that happened last year or happened a few years ago.

There’s a reason that coolness is valued more in these things than in accounting.

Let’s get to the meat of this idea. The lesson in coolness and this idea of coolness as an alternative status and thinking about people in music and technology and beyond, how they have these particular qualities and behaviors that give them a rise in status. Sometimes ironically, then give them more traditional status.

Once you have one form of status, you can often trade it off for another. Sociologists have been talking about that for a while.

People will pay you to come to their party.

Bordeaux talks about it as a trade-off between financial capital and social capital. You can buy friends with money and if you have friends you can get money from them. There are the different forms of status that you can exchange for one another.

As I was alluding to earlier with the Instagram influencers, because of your cool behavior, you now have 500,000 people who follow you and then suddenly people will pay you to promote their ideas or their products.

If you’re a cool band, then you can sell out a music theater and make money that way.

Let’s talk about single people for a moment. I never thought about this until I approached you about being on this show. I thought it’d be fun to talk about coolness. One of the ideas of this show is for people to stretch themselves and to learn to think differently. If you’re going to walk a solo path for now or forever and you’re going to do it in a positive fashion, which is what I want people to be inspired to do, then thinking about the world differently is going to be beneficial. Whether it’s related or not because you’re living a different lifestyle and being comfortable living a different lifestyle.

As long as the norms are saying you should be married and you should have a family, then being solo is going to show autonomy, at least at a certain point in life when the norm is to be in a family or not be solo.

Let’s step back for a bit. The norm certainly in the United States at least is that you should get married and you should have children. At least that’s reflected in the base rates of people getting married and having children, how high that is.

Also, in the questions you get from parents, older relatives, other people, there’s often that assumption.

It’s not even the demographics and statistics of it all, but it’s the nature of the inquiries that you get. It’s the fact that being married with children is built into policies, rules, and everyday life.

A lot of times it’s assumed that the unit of analysis for politics is the family.

If we were to look back and reverse engineer this based upon your theory, then there has to be a sweet spot in terms of the okayness of violating this normative structure. I’ll give you an example of this.

I have a question. A lot of times when I’m talking about you need to diverge from the norm a little bit, if there’s a continuum with being solo versus being married, it seems more like a dichotomy. What’s the difference between very solo versus a little bit solo?

I’m keeping the idea of being single constant and I’m changing the strength of the norm of being married in this example, by the way I’m thinking about this. What I’m suggesting is that we are starting to enter a time where the okayness of deviating from that has increased. It’s part of why I believe this show is timely. If we go back to the ‘50s or if we go back to Dylan’s time in the ‘60s, that was starting to crack.

If you look at the early seasons of Mad Men, there was one woman in the neighborhood who was divorced. She was looked at as such a pariah by the other women in her neighborhood Like, “I can’t believe this person. I saw her walking by herself on the street.” They did not see it as appropriate and they were terrified that they themselves might end up in that situation.

By the end, almost everybody is divorced.

The show ends in the early ‘70s and by then, that stigma had been lifted a lot.

When I was doing a bunch of research as I was approaching this project back when it was my secret project, I was reading about these bachelor taxes that governments would impose. If you were a single man of a certain age, you had to pay essentially a fine. It was called a tax, but you had to pay extra money because you weren’t married. What was fascinating is that while governments appreciated single men in particular times like if there’s a war, they love single men. It’s great to send single men off to war. If you need to conquer a frontier, great, send the single men out there. Once the war was over or once the frontier was conquered, you didn’t want these single men running amuck.

Look at executives or entrepreneurs or people who are expected to work 80 to 100 hours a week, whether they’re men or women. It’s hard to do that. They spend a lot of time supporting and being with the family. Being solo is valuable in those areas.

The flip side of this is you get these kinds of effects on women certainly during World War II where women were encouraged to work. Norms can flip and change depending on these needs. There’s a great book that I like a lot called Spinster by Kate Bolick. She has all these case studies of these single women through history who flaunted the conventions of the time. What’s fascinating, they were incredibly polarizing at the time. When you read about them now, they seem cool as shit like you go, “These ladies are amazing. I want to party with her.” I’m seeing this now through this retrospection.

Once those norm violations have become a lot more appropriate, those were stupid rules anyway. She shouldn’t have been following them.

We seem to be in that sweet spot now where there are enough questions about marriage being the right path. There are enough people who aren’t doing it, certainly delaying doing it, that suggests that at least some single people can be seen as cool. Who are those? Tell me if I’m cool or not. That’s what I’m asking. Who are the cool singles? We’ve established this as that. We’re getting to the point where it’s becoming okay not to get married.

This gets to one point that I haven’t mentioned yet. I’ve talked a lot about diverging from the norm, yet I’m throwing this term autonomy in there. Those aren’t exactly the same thing. Autonomy means being independent or following your own path as opposed to being controlled by other people who are doing what they want you to do. By going against the norm, you can show that you’re autonomous, but that’s not always the case because you might go against the norm because there’s some pressure. That is not cool. If you’re single, it’s because you can’t get a date. There’s a subclass of what a sociologist calls angry white men who are involuntary celibate.

These incels. There’s another term called MGTOW, Men Going Their Own Way.

Involuntarily celibate is probably not a cool thing because they’re not choosing to be celibate. It’s something where they would want to. They want to be following the norm, but they’re not able to. People who are poor are not cool because they can’t make money. People who could make a lot of money but choose not to, that can be cool. It’s the same thing with being single. People who want to be married and are trying hard to be married and can’t do it that probably wouldn’t be cool. People who might otherwise have that, the ability to follow the norm, yet choose not to, there’s a good chance that they could seem cool.

First of all, thank you for telling me that I’m cool. This is the coolest I’ve ever felt.

The more it gets to your head, the less cool you are.

I’ll turn it off soon. As someone who doesn’t feel cool much of his life, I appreciate this moment. I’m basking in it for a while. The question then become who sees you as cool in that situation? What you’re describing is someone who says, “Marriage is not for me,” yet they might be an appealing partner. That’s where the autonomy comes in. The fact is you’re not doing major damage to the world by not getting married anymore. It’s not feudal London or feudal Europe. Who sees you as cool? Is it the married people? From what perspective?

Sometimes there are multiple audiences who differ in this judgment usually. In this case, it’s hard to tell who those would be. The people who are for them, being in a family is the most important thing like family values or conservatives maybe. For them, it wouldn’t be cool because it doesn’t seem appropriate. For them, it is threatening. Marriage is the ultimate end goal. they view for individuals and anyone who doesn’t follow that, aside from maybe if they’re Catholic priests, that would seem not appropriate. It’s an affront to their important values. For other people, maybe younger people in their twenties or teens who for them marriage is somebody can do it and somebody cannot, it might not have any bearing on whether a person’s cool or not. For them, it’s not normative to be one or the other.

It’s hard to be cool when you’re young and single because you’re not breaking the norm.

Youth culture is interesting because there are always two sets of norms. There are the norms associated with the young and there are also the norms associated with the adults who are often seen as mainstream. A lot of times what I’ve read about with teens in high schools is the way kids become cool in high school is by conforming to others. That’s not totally true. They’re conforming to the team norms, but a lot of times those norms are the opposite of what the adults want, do or say. It’s a little more nuanced than their following norms versus they’re breaking them.

Is this fair to say the cool single person is they are at least partially by way of choice? Secondly, owns it and is comfortable with it. Is there a third element to it?

All of these other things that we’ve been talking about where being single or being married, people vary dramatically in how cool or uncool they are depending on what extent they stick to mainstream norms, to their ability to go against them in a way that others see as interesting or valuable. If you’re solo but you dress like everyone else and repeat the ideas everyone else has, you’re going to seem less cool than someone who is solo and also has a job that no one’s ever done before or comes up with new ideas. That person’s going to be cooler than someone who’s solo and is indiscriminately flouting norms. They’re running around naked in the street and kicking little children.

I’m glad you brought that up because it’s some choice that you have. It’s some comfort with that choice. It sounds like the third thing and this is a real principle that I have for this idea, which is that you’re using your time, energy, and resources to do remarkable things with your life. Imagine you were a single person and you lived your life as if you were a married person. You work your 9:00 to 5:00, you did your commute, you came home to your suburban house, and you sat in front of the TV minus the children, minus the partner. That doesn’t seem cool to me. You go off to your boxing class as an 85-year-old woman and you’re pounding the heavy bag, that’s damn cool. You’re making art or you’re starting a business or you’re traveling to Indonesia to work on the service project.

There’s potential for solo people to be a lot cooler because they have the freedom and the autonomy to engage in way more counter normative, unusual, or remarkable and interesting behaviors.

Before we wrap up and get to the bonus material, I have one question from the audience that’s based on coolness. This is from Beverly. Beverly says, “If in general, beyond my singleness, I want to be cool, what can I do?”

You need to know your culture and your audience. First off, you need to know what’s normal and what’s not. You need to figure out which of these norms you can break without coming across as a total freak or someone who’s harmful. A lot of times, fashion is one of the easier ways to do this because there are set norms and trends that you can look at what most people are wearing. At the same time in most settings, other people don’t have strong beliefs about everybody has to be wearing black. A lot of times, one of the easier ways to do it is to wear something different than others, but it needs to be in a way that looks good. It can’t be sloppy. I can wear a different type of clothing by wearing a shirt that smells like vomit and is totally stained. That won’t be cool even though that’s different.

Beverly, don’t wear any vomit-stained clothing. Do try to wear something that’s different.

One other misconception is that people become cool by not showing their emotions, appearing still, emotionless. Cool often means not showing emotion, but that’s not true. James Dean and Miles Davis, people who’ve written about this thing, they say that they become cool by hiding their emotions. That’s not why they were cool. They were cool because they were breaking all kinds of norms in interesting ways. James Dean was redefining what it meant to be an actor on top of being good looking. A lot of times those roles were highly rebellious. Miles Davis was breaking all sorts of rules with his music in a way that people found interesting. It wasn’t because they weren’t expressive. I have data showing that. In one of my studies, I showed people two pictures of James Dean, one where he’s smiling and one where he has that straight face where he’s not showing emotion. People think he’s cooler when he’s smiling. This effect is robust. I see it across men, women, unknown people, models, Michael Jordan, they all seem cooler when they’re smiling than when they’re not.

Why is that? Is this a likeability factor?

Yes. Part of coolness has these two dimensions. One is people like you or think what you’re doing is good. The other is the autonomy. Smiling is strictly a positive thing. People like you more when you smile. What’s interesting is there is a narrow range of situations where not smiling is cooler than smiling. If you put someone in direct competition with an outgroup, so two boxers before a match, then people see not smiling is cooler because it makes them seem more powerful, more dominant. Dominance is a form of autonomy. If you can control your environment and control others, then you’re not subject to their will. If you’re about to fight someone, it might be cool not to smile. In almost any other situation, I’ve seen people think other people are cool when they’re emotionally expressive, when they smile. This also fits with some new data I’ve found where we looked at the big five personality traits. Openness and extroversion are both highly correlated with how cool people see you.

I could see the openness to new experiences because you’re trying new things.

That hits the autonomy more. The extroversion hits the positivity more. What I’m looking at is how cool someone is versus how good someone is seen. That makes sense because we can think both extroverts and introverts are good people, but extroversion is cooler. It’s not about being different autonomous, it’s also about being autonomous in a way that others value and follow. It’s not the loner in the woods that’s cool. It’s the person who goes and starts a community in the woods and thinks of a different way of living out there. That is cool. They tend to be extroverted.

Good news for Beverly because she is a smiley, happy person. She’s on her way. This is great. We have some bonus material where I give him the name of three people and he tells me why they’re cool. I want to say, Caleb, thanks so much. This was a cool experience.

Thanks for having me.

As I promised, I’m going to ask Caleb why these people are cool. I came up with this list from three different areas. These are all people I think are cool, but I’m not exactly sure why. Now I’m starting to become sure why. Before when I wrote them down, I had no idea. The first one is Muhammad Ali.

Ali is a great example because he has both of those things. He has the autonomy going his own way, but also the positive things. He was the best boxer of his era, which gives him the ability. When he flouts convention, when he joins a new religion, when he changes his name, when he refuses to support the American government and protest against the Vietnam War and goes to jail for those beliefs, all those things make him seem highly autonomous. That combined with his skill as a boxer and also his charisma helped make him cool.

When you think about Muhammad Ali’s career, he’s a brash young man who talked a lot of shit and then delivered.

The other thing about Ali is at the time, a lot of people didn’t think he was cool because they didn’t see him converting to Islam or him protesting the Vietnam War is appropriate. To them, he was a criminal and mainstream society put him in jail. Over time as people realized this war wasn’t such a good thing, black people have gotten poor treatment from society for a long time. He spoke out against that too. His deviance, his autonomy started to seem more appropriate and it’s made him even cooler as time has gone on.

He was much more divisive now.

Now, he’s seen almost as universally being cool.

This one, if you’re paying attention to music these days, you might know Billie Eilish. Billie is a young musician who burst onto the scenes.

She had a small hit in 2016 or 2017, but her album in 2019 was huge. It won all sorts of Grammys. She became the youngest performer to ever win some of these Grammys and as many Grammys as she won. She is cool to a lot of people. I’m one of these people who think she’s cool for a couple of reasons. One, she mashes up a lot of genres in her music. It’s hard to categorize because it doesn’t follow any one set of conventions. She breaks norms there, but at the same time it’s often catchy and familiar.

It’s super easy to listen to and it feels like pop music without feeling like pop music.

My guess is it will change. There’s going to be a lot more stuff that sounds like that. By playing with and breaking some of these norms in a way that’s not extreme that it sounds like music you can’t listen to or don’t enjoy listening to, that’s helped make her cool. Her appearance also hasn’t hurt the fact that she doesn’t dress like most other pop stars.

There are these common pop stars who are done up, lots of scantily clad, dancing in front of other people. You think about Rihanna and Lady Gaga.

She’s wearing baggy clothes with her hair that at least looks like it’s not carefully done. She has this F-you attitude that probably is divisive but can make her seem cool because it seems like she doesn’t care. It seems like she doesn’t care what other people think, which is a mark of autonomy.

She is most popular, not with people in their 30s and 40s like we are, but rather with people in their teens and twenties.

That’s true, although the fact that she won all these Grammys shows that she’s breaking through to some of the older people too because it’s not teens who are awarding them.

This last one I chose because I wanted to think of a cool scientist because we are rare breeds. Perhaps the coolest scientist ever is Albert Einstein.

I’ll buy that. With him, the coolness comes mostly from his ideas, which were different. He changed the way that we think about physics and the entire world. Also once he became famous, he had this quirky scientist vibe. People would come up to him, recognize him, and he’d say, “Pardon me, people. I’m always mistaken for Professor Einstein.” He played it off. There’s that iconic image with his expressive, quirky face, sticking his tongue out where he’s not posing the way you would expect a serious scientist to look. That combination and mostly it’s about him changing the way we think about the world.

Physics was being done a certain way and thought of it in a certain way for so long.

Newtonian physics had dominated for 200 years, if not more. Einstein said, “This is missing something.” I’m no physicist, so I barely understand these theories, but there’s this whole other way of looking at the world that we’re missing. Anytime you give people a different picture of the world that they see as valuable or in this case explains the world better, that’s going to be cool. It helps that a lot of times scientists, even if they are able to come up with that intellectual breakthrough, will not seem cool in their personal lives. They take themselves too seriously, they seem stuck up, regal, or something like that. Einstein also had a personality where he didn’t seem too full of himself and that helped him seem cool too.

If you go back to the study that you talked about earlier, Einstein’s hair is his red sneakers. That’s super. We’ll end with those three and thanks for sticking around for a little extra bonus material, Caleb.

Thanks for having me.


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About Caleb Warren

SOLO 28 | Theory Of CoolnessCaleb Warren thinks, writes, and sometimes teaches as an Associate Professor in the Marketing Department at the University of Arizona. Caleb teaches consumer behavior and digital marketing. But he is most interested in explaining why and when people respond positively to behaviors that part from the norm. In his spare time, he writes and performs songs about townies and the boys and girls who party with them.


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