Gordon in the News: last updated 10/22/2012

Measuring 'Cool': Psychology Professor's New Study Shows How College Students Perceive What's Cool

by Jo Kadlecek

Can a college student decide on his or her own what is cool?

Not according to Dr. Jonathan Gerber, assistant professor of psychology at Gordon College, whose most recent study found that student perceptions of the concept of "cool" are defined by what they think others view as cool. While most studies on "cool" come from marketing experts, Gerber’s study, “Measuring the Existence of Cool using a Social Relations Model,” is one in a small body of research in the field of social psychology and will be published this month in PsychNology, an open source and online international peer-reviewed academic journal that explores “the relationship between humans and technology.”

Gerber, with the research assistance of Gordon senior Carly Geiman, conducted a study of 47 college students in various psychology classes not taught by Gerber. Students were put into groups of 10 to 13 sitting in a circle and a pseudonym was placed in front of each student to preserve anonymity. They were then asked to rate two questions: how cool they personally thought each participant in the group was, or “personal cool”; and how cool they thought the group found each participant, or “group cool.” On a scale of 1 to 7, 7 being extremely cool and 1 being extremely uncool, students were given 15 to 20 minutes to judge and rate the others in their group. The data, Gerber believes, suggest that cool is defined in groups.

“There’s a big difference between what you think is cool and what you think others think is cool,” Gerber said. “Consensus is very different to an idiosyncratic notion of cool. Although individuals may hold unique views of what cool is, for coolness to exist across a network, people must be aware of what those around them mean by cool.”

The use of group ratings, instead of traditional binary ratings, Gerber said, was unique to this study and revealed a pattern of results consistent with a distributed property. In other words, what individuals perceived that the group thought was cool, best defined coolness itself, and made it a dynamic, not static, concept.

“If we want to find coolness, it may be necessary to search for it not in objects but in the perceptions of others—not in the speaker, but in our view of the receivers of the message,” Gerber said. “This is where cool has most stability, and it is where language might ordinarily be said to exist.”

A native Australian, Gerber is also a musician and expert in pop music history who considers, for instance, Miles Davis the author of cool jazz, literally taking the hot fast tempo jazz and slowing it down, or cooling it off. Gerber also studies the notion of rejection because of its role in the process of inclusion, and plans to conduct similar studies to measure "cool" in other settings.

“When you think about it, one of the things that motivates people even to care about cool is that we hate rejection,” he said. “This study reveals the tension between the real and elusive sides of cool, and really, in a small way, of what it means to belong.”

For more information or for media interviews, please contact Jo Kadlecek, Senior Writer, jo.kadlecek@gordon.edu .


Gordon College is one of the nation's premier Christian colleges and located just north of Boston. Gordon offers students extraordinary access to leading-edge opportunities for intellectual, professional, and leadership development to address the increasingly complex challenges of a global society, and stands apart from other outstanding institutions in New England by combining an exceptional education with an informed Christian faith.


Gerber head shot