TOPICS > Economy

Why we crave what’s cool

September 10, 2015 at 6:20 PM EDT
What does it mean to be cool? It's a means of standing out, as well as a way of fitting in. In studying the brain, economists have found that when we consume products from status brands, it actually gives us a way to create social networks, friendships, alliances. Economics correspondent Paul Solman reports.

GWEN IFILL: You probably heard quite a bit during the last 24 hours about the latest cool new products from Apple, iPads and iPhones, that in some circles quickly become the latest must-have gadget. But what exactly makes a product cool?

Economics correspondent Paul Solman, a pretty cool guy himself, has been exploring that.

Here’s what he found, part of our weekly series Making Sense, which airs every Thursday on the “NewsHour.”

PAUL SOLMAN: An MRI machine at the California Institute of Technology, where scientists are helping pioneer the study of neuroeconomics, how the brain makes economic decisions — the key brain structure that distinguishes us from fellow primates, the medial prefrontal cortex.

STEVE QUARTZ, California Institute of Technology: It’s a part of our brain that’s tracking our social status or our perceived social status.

PAUL SOLMAN: In 2005, Steve Quartz and his Caltech colleagues were surprised to find that this chunk of gray matter is activated not only when thinking about our status, but also by looking at status symbols, products from certain brands we tend to think of as cool, Apple, Scion, Chuck Taylor’s, also activated, a more primitive brain structure called the ventral striatum.

STEVE QUARTZ: The central reward structure that is involved in literally every form of addiction.

PAUL SOLMAN: So, this MacBook Air, let’s stipulate that that’s cool. If I look at it, it’s going to stimulate the same part of the brain as if I won at gambling or took some cocaine?

STEVE QUARTZ: Absolutely. It’s anticipating how much social reward we would get.

PAUL SOLMAN: What converted Quartz to the consumerism he had formerly condemned? Discovering the biological basis of brands perceived as cool and seeing them touch both the deepest, most primitive parts of our brains, and our highest, most socialized selves.

To illustrate, Quartz took us to nearby Colorado Boulevard, on New Year’s Day, the route of college football’s Rose Bowl Parade, the rest of year, Pasadena’s main shopping drag, including the Tesla showroom.

STEVE QUARTZ: One of our needs in a very complex society, where we encounter more people every day than probably our ancestors encountered over their whole lifetime, is our need to very rapidly evaluate other people.

And one of the most potent ways of doing that is through our automobiles. So, a car isn’t just a thing. It’s a set of symbols and associations that we have to figure out in order to understand how we navigate our social worlds with that car.

PAUL SOLMAN: Owning a Tesla says, I’m a well-heeled environmentalist, a Volvo, I care about safety.

ACTOR: Were the Wright brothers insane? Bill gates, Les Paul, Ali.

STEVE QUARTZ: Cadillac last year had an ad campaign where they made sure people recognize the car is an American car.

ACTOR: It’s pretty simple. You work hard, you create your own luck, and you have got to believe anything is possible.

PAUL SOLMAN: Ford’s response?

ACTRESS: You work hard, you believe that anything is possible, and you try to make the world better. You try.

STEVE QUARTZ: Am I, by owning a Cadillac, someone who endorses kind of individualistic values of America? Or am I, by owning a Ford, someone who appreciates more of the community that I can build with my car ownership?

PAUL SOLMAN: Or are my tastes somewhat edgier? Consider the least expensive Mercedes. You, too, can now afford the good life and the status of belonging to a distinctive community of cool.

To Quartz, the idea of cool, now the title of his new book, propelled the proliferation of separate but equal status groups.

STEVE QUARTZ: Cool began in the 1950s as rebel cool. To be cool wasn’t to conform, not to be integrated into mainstream society. The biggest sin for the cool rebel of the 1950s was to sell out.

PAUL SOLMAN: He argues that what began as a look, the rebel without a cause, was a blessing, neuroeconomically speaking, for 1950s Americans and the rest of us thereafter.

STEVE QUARTZ: What happened in the 1950s was that, as we began to increase our standard of living, in a hierarchical society, it really created what we can think of as a status dilemma. There just wasn’t enough status to go around. And what people began to do, especially kids began to do, was create alternative status systems.

PAUL SOLMAN: Create them through brands.

Take Apple, which positioned itself as rebel cool as early as the first Macintosh, which so famously debuted in 1984.

ACTOR: We shall obey.

PAUL SOLMAN: Apple may have gone overboard, as it were, with a follow-up ad suggesting users of rival IBM P.C.s were lemmings.

ACTOR: You can look into it, or you can go on with business as usual.

PAUL SOLMAN: Its rebel identity was established, though, even if today’s lemmings may well be Apple devotees.

RICK EISENLORD, Apple customer: I have the Apple Watch. I have got the Apple iPad, the iPhone.

PAUL SOLMAN: Rick Eisenlord is a Pasadena pastor whose flock buys as he does.

RICK EISENLORD: So, they have Apple stuff too. And, you know, we get together and we — especially when something new comes out, and it’s a lot of fun. It’s like, oh, you got an Apple Watch, you got the new iPhone. And so there’s an excitement and there’s kind of a feeling of camaraderie.

STEVE QUARTZ: It came to really an enormous surprise and shock to me to find really, as we look more inside the brain for why we consume, how all this stuff gives us an opportunity to create social networks, to create friendships, to create alliances. All the things we do daily, when we interact with other people around in a lot of ways our consumer choices.

PAUL SOLMAN: Not for everyone, of course.

What, if anything, do you think being an Apple user — and I’m one, too — says about you?

SERGIO BAZ, Apple customer: Nothing.


SERGIO BAZ: Nothing.

HALEY JACOBSON, Apple customer: I know a lot of people that use Apple. But I know a lot of people that don’t use Apple, too. So, it doesn’t really make a difference to me.

PAUL SOLMAN: But aren’t we being manipulated by advertisers and their brands? Just look at teenagers. As Amy Heckerling put it in her 1995 film, “Clueless”:

ACTRESS: I mean, come on. It looks like they just fell out of bed and put on some baggy pants with a backwards cap. And, like, we’re expected to swoon?

PAUL SOLMAN: Blame biology, says Quartz.

STEVE QUARTZ: We all know that, as soon as our kids become teenagers, they become obsessed with their social life. They become extremely concerned about how they are doing in their social group. It’s because this part of the brain is coming online, and it’s making their social environment much more important to them.

PAUL SOLMAN: So, as that part of the brain develops, that’s where peer pressure comes from?

STEVE QUARTZ: That’s right.

PAUL SOLMAN: And so is this why teenagers are so brand-conscious?

STEVE QUARTZ: That’s right, because a brand is an extension of themselves. They’re still trying to figure out what their self is, so the brand helps them kind of develop that self.

PAUL SOLMAN: Quartz recalls s his own adolescent obsessions growing up in Toronto.

STEVE QUARTZ: In Canada, we have shoes that had two stripes called North Stars. And you wore them when you were 8 or 10, let’s say. But in high school, you wore Adidas that had three stripes. And so I recall, actually, with my mother, a standoff in a shoe store holding out for the third stripe, because, for that — a kid, having that third stripe meant all the difference between being cool or not cool.

PAUL SOLMAN: And when, if ever, did you get over that?

STEVE QUARTZ: I think we all still continue throughout our whole life to be sensitive to these kinds of processes.

PAUL SOLMAN: And, in the end, that was the epiphany of Professor Quartz’s brain research.

STEVE QUARTZ: We need to really reconsider whether our consumerism is a bad thing or a good thing, specifically around our need to give each other status, to feel valued in the community and to create value within groups.

PAUL SOLMAN: This is economics correspondent Paul Solman in Pasadena, reporting by way of my long-since-mature medial prefrontal cortex, for the PBS NewsHour.

GWEN IFILL: See, I told you Paul was cool.