The exhibit, “American Cool,” at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, showcases various incarnations of cool—from Walt Whitman and Frederick Douglass to Humphrey Bogart, Jack Kerouac, and Steve Jobs. It emphasizes the Americanness of the concept—its “earned individuality” as opposed to inherited hauteur. But what, exactly, makes something cool?
The crucial factor, says a forthcoming study in the Journal of Consumer Research, is the demonstration of autonomy. Refusal to comply with established norms signals that you have confidence and independence, that you’re not concerned with the expectations of others. But this only works if autonomy is considered appropriate—if the norm being defied seems unnecessary, illegitimate, or repressive. Being cool isn’t just about breaking rules. It’s about breaking the right rules in the right context.