Sunday, November 8, 2009

Coolness Emphasizes Short Run Over Long Run

There are many paradoxes of high school/college-land. Most of these involve the interplay between wildly reckless acts on the weekends followed by reasonably hard work during the week. For example, binge drinking. Or, despite the fact that individuals age 15-24 are only 14% of the US pop, they account for ~29% of the costs of motor vehicle accidents. The risk of accidents increases with additional teen passengers in the car.

I think that the reason that risky behaviors are favored by the 15-24 year old age group is because they are cooler. This is the simplest explanation and is probably what anyone in that age group would tell you. Why are they cooler? Cool things emphasize short run outcomes over long term outcomes. For example,

Cool things: Getting in fights, extreme sports, opening beer bottles with your teeth, binge drinking, cramming for tests, throwing a party at your parent's house when they're away, smoking cigarettes, "running into" someone (as opposed to "meeting up"), driving fast on drugs, etc.

Not cool things: Studying hard for a test well in advance of it, developing your personal brand, complaining (may help you get your way in long run but annoying in short), drinking a glass of water in between drinks of alcohol, diversifying your stocks, liking math, working on your fundamentals in sports, etc.

The way to tell if something is cool is whether or not people who care about being cool would brag about having done it. The best example is getting a tattoo. You can get temporary tattoos like henna that will last up to a month. But since this is only temporary it doesn't really emphasize the short run over the long run like a real tattoo does. Older people will often tell you not to get real tattoos, which is a good sign that it is cool.

So, being cool is a signal to your peers that your chief priority is to have fun and enjoy yourself in the current moment as opposed to the future. The more the act emphasizes the short run over the long run, the more credible the signal is that you will be fun to hang around. Perhaps you think that this is a worthless goal and that everyone should spend less time trying to be cool. But if that's your immediate reaction, you yourself probably aren't very cool.

This is my favored explanation, but there are others. For example,

Impressiveness: Committing reckless acts and still succeeding in conventional activities like work and school is harder than simply succeeding in those conventional activities. Thus everyone loves to say that they "work hard and party hard." Similar to how celebrations in sports are looked down upon because it is harder to not celebrate.

Recklessness: A willingness to fight is an evolutionarily stable strategy that has been exapted into our culture. Perhaps all of these cool things really just signal recklessness which indicates a willingness to fight. This is Kevin's idea.

Feel free to take potshots at the theory and/or propose your own.