Never Saw It Coming: Cultural Challenges to Envisioning the Worst

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Overview

People—especially Americans—are by and large optimists. They're much better at imagining best-case scenarios (I could win the lottery!) than worst-case scenarios (A hurricane could destroy my neighborhood!). This is true not just of their approach to imagining the future, but of their memories as well: people are better able to describe the best moments of their lives than they are the worst.

Though there are psychological reasons for this phenomenon, Karen A.Cerulo, in Never Saw It Coming, considers instead the role of society in fostering this attitude. What kinds of communities develop this pattern of thought, which do not, and what does that say about human ability to evaluate possible outcomes of decisions and events?

Cerulo takes readers to diverse realms of experience, including intimate family relationships, key transitions in our lives, the places we work and play, and the boardrooms of organizations and bureaucracies. Using interviews, surveys, artistic and fictional accounts, media reports, historical data, and official records, she illuminates one of the most common, yet least studied, of human traits—a blatant disregard for worst-case scenarios. Never Saw It Coming, therefore, will be crucial to anyone who wants to understand human attempts to picture or plan the future.

“In Never Saw It Coming, Karen Cerulo argues that in American society there is a ‘positive symmetry,’ a tendency to focus on and exaggerate the best, the winner, the most optimistic outcome and outlook. Thus, the conceptions of the worst are underdeveloped and elided. Naturally, as she masterfully outlines, there are dramatic consequences to this characterological inability to imagine and prepare for the worst, as the failure to heed memos leading up to both the 9/11 and NASA Challenger disasters, for instance, so painfully reminded us.”--Robin Wagner-Pacifici, Swarthmore College

“Katrina, 9/11, and the War in Iraq—all demonstrate the costliness of failing to anticipate worst-case scenarios. Never Saw It Coming explains why it is so hard to do so: adaptive behavior hard-wired into human cognition is complemented and reinforced by cultural practices, which are in turn institutionalized in the rules and structures of formal organizations. But Karen Cerulo doesn’t just diagnose the problem; she uses case studies of settings in which people effectively anticipate and deal with potential disaster to describe structural solutions to the chronic dilemmas she describes so well. Never Saw It Coming is a powerful contribution to the emerging fields of cognitive and moral sociology.”--Paul DiMaggio, Princeton University

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Editorial Reviews

Slate
Everybody respects a good attitude, but no amount of magical thinking will make the universe obey our wishes. . . . We're addicted to positive thinking, Oprah. And The Secret has sent the whole world on a bender. You and maybe you alone, can rein it in. . . . Why not invite Cerulo on your show? What's the worse that could happen?

— John Gravois

Contemporary Sociology
Never Saw It Coming is a work of disciplined imagination at its best. Lucid and persuasive, written with charm and humor, it is a model of how to think about the relationships among culture, cognition, and social structure.

— Robert Zussman

American Journal of Sociology
A welcome addition. . . . The reader comes away from this book with a new appreciation of the need for mindful attention, resilient action, and skills of improvisation. With these three resources as part of an action repertoire, we will go a long way toward acknowledging and preparing for worst-case scenarios.

— Karl E. Weick

Paul DiMaggio

“Katrina, 9/11, and the War in Iraq—all demonstrate the costliness of failing to anticipate worst-case scenarios. Never Saw It Coming explains why it is so hard to do so: adaptive behavior hard-wired into human cognition is complemented and reinforced by cultural practices, which are in turn institutionalized in the rules and structures of formal organizations. But Karen Cerulo doesn’t just diagnose the problem; she uses case studies of settings in which people effectively anticipate and deal with potential disaster to describe structural solutions to the chronic dilemmas she describes so well. Never Saw It Coming is a powerful contribution to the emerging fields of cognitive and moral sociology.”--Paul DiMaggio, Princeton University

 

Robin Wagner-Pacifici

“In Never Saw It Coming, Karen Cerulo argues that in American society there is a ‘positive symmetry,’ a tendency to focus on and exaggerate the best, the winner, the most optimistic outcome and outlook. Thus, the conceptions of the worst are underdeveloped and elided. Naturally, as she masterfully outlines, there are dramatic consequences to this characterological inability to imagine and prepare for the worst, as the failure to heed memos leading up to both the 9/11 and NASA Challenger disasters, for instance, so painfully reminded us.”--Robin Wagner-Pacifici, Swarthmore College

 

Slate - John Gravois

"Everybody respects a good attitude, but no amount of magical thinking will make the universe obey our wishes. . . . We're addicted to positive thinking, Oprah. And The Secret has sent the whole world on a bender. You and maybe you alone, can rein it in. . . . Why not invite Cerulo on your show? What's the worse that could happen?"
Contemporary Sociology - Robert Zussman

"Never Saw It Coming is a work of disciplined imagination at its best. Lucid and persuasive, written with charm and humor, it is a model of how to think about the relationships among culture, cognition, and social structure."
American Journal of Sociology - Karl E. Weick

"A welcome addition. . . . The reader comes away from this book with a new appreciation of the need for mindful attention, resilient action, and skills of improvisation. With these three resources as part of an action repertoire, we will go a long way toward acknowledging and preparing for worst-case scenarios."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226100326
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 10/2/2006
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Karen A. Cerulo is professor of sociology at Rutgers University and the author of several books, including Identity Designs: The Sights and Sounds of a Nation, winner of the American Sociological Association Culture Section’s Best Book Award, and Deciphering Violence: The Cognitive Structure of Right and Wrong.

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Read an Excerpt

NEVER SAW IT COMING

Cultural Challenges to Envisioning the Worst


By KAREN A. CERULO THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS

Copyright © 2006 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-10033-3



Chapter One

What's the Worst That Could Happen?

In The Art of the Deal, Donald Trump offered his readers the secret to his success: "It's been said that I believe in the power of positive thinking. In fact, I believe in the power of negative thinking.... I always go into a deal anticipating the worst. If you plan for the worst-if you can live with the worst-the good will always take care of itself."

Donald Trump is, after all, an American success story. In business circles, he's lauded as the "comeback kid" and more. So if triumph is indeed one's aim, shouldn't Trump's strategy be part of the game plan? ... Perhaps. But it is important to note that the Trump method holds one unexpected glitch. For the strategy to be effective, one must be able to fully anticipate the worst. And in this book, I propose that envisioning the worst may be a more difficult task than it seems.

The worst outcome, the worst fate, the worst of the lot, the worst of times-at first glance, these concepts seem so stark, so clear. Yet as we will see, when individuals, groups, and communities attempt to detail such instances, they often find that worst cases elude definition. In many situations, the worstsimply cannot be pinned down. Why would the worst prove problematic to conceive?

Many would argue that the challenge stems from emotional or psychological forces. For some, envisioning the worst may be frightening, even terrifying. Others may see the exercise as too morose and find the task unreasonably depressing and void of all hope. Envisioning the worst may even prove disabling for some, with dismal ideas keeping them from productive action. To be sure, one cannot deny the psychoemotional pitfalls of imagining the worst. But I suggest that there are additional factors at play. Building on theories and ideas forwarded by both cultural and cognitive sociologists, I argue that the inability to envision and specify the worst is, in part, a sociocultural phenomenon. I contend that the worst can become a perceptual blind spot, obscured or blurred by a variety of routine and patterned sociocultural practices-practices that, despite any single individual's intentions, can veil the worst and make it difficult to define.

In Never Saw It Coming, I take readers to a wide variety of settings in which the worst is hidden from view, and I investigate the sociocultural practices that sustain this very common perceptual gap. I explore as well the ways in which certain elements of social structure may encourage this biased perspective. Finally, I consider the social consequences and pitfalls that masking the worst can exact. In so doing, I question whether a more symmetrical view of quality is an achievable, or desirable, social goal.

Recognizing the Worst

What's the worst that could happen to you? Can you clearly articulate it?

In the winter of 2000, I suffered an unexpected and extended illness. Following what was predicted to be a difficult but uneventful sinus surgery, I developed a series of life-disrupting ailments that, at first, the doctors seemed unable to diagnose accurately. It became difficult for me to swallow, and I was unable to digest and eliminate food properly. I began to experience an irregular heartbeat and periods of blurred vision. I also developed a variety of serious bacterial and viral infections, the origins and recurrences of which were not wholly clear. For more than two years, my days were filled with pain, discomfort, and fear; it seemed as if my body had completely failed me. I had additional surgeries and underwent specialized treatment strategies. I had what seemed like endless tests and took a battery of prescribed medications-each with its own brand of difficult side effects. Through it all, I wrestled with the overwhelming uncertainty that threats to one's health and well-being can pose. What was the worst news the doctors could deliver to me? Cancer ... an inoperable tumor ... some other terminal disease? More surgery ... more medicine? Would a successful treatment emerge? Would that treatment be worse than the disease? Or would the doctors remain unable to tell me what was wrong? Which of these options would be the worst? Frankly, in the midst of this ordeal, I simply wasn't sure.

Explicating the worst can prove difficult in a wide variety of settings. Recently, for example, I polled my classes at Rutgers University and asked my students, What's the best thing that could happen to you? My students' answers were amazingly precise. One person wrote, "The best thing that could happen to me is that Tom and I finish school and get married." Another wrote, "To get all A's this semester." Still another said, "I would win three hundred million dollars instantly." And one student reported, "I would become an NBA franchise player within the next three years." Clearly, my students had very specific definitions of the best things in life. But a few moments later, I asked my classes, What's the worst thing that could happen to you? When faced with this question, the students' precision all but disappeared. Rather than pinpointing the worst, students offered very general, abstract answers such as "maybe, death?" "getting sick," or simply "failure." While these young men and women could itemize the best of events with a high degree of specificity, their articulations of the worst were both vague and terse.

My students are not alone in their confused sense of the worst. In an interesting study of applause and booing, sociologist Steven Clayman crystallized the nebulous quality of the worst, as well as people's shared inability to perceive it definitively. Clayman reported that applause, a collective signal by which audiences acknowledge the best, is typically exerted with concerted assuredness. In general, audiences initiate applause within three seconds of a precipitating event, and they sustain a unified response that lasts about eight seconds. This pattern suggests an intersubjective agreement regarding the "upper end" of quality; it implies a widely shared definition of the best, one that garners a swift and standard response. But Clayman found a notable difference in audiences' execution of booing. Booing, he reported, lacked the concerted spontaneity of applause. Clayman uncovered a substantial time lag between the completion of a precipitating event and a full blown "boo." "This time lag allows mutual monitoring to guide the onset of booing," with certain isolated responses such as mumbling, moaning or heckling needed to trigger a unified audience response. The disorganization of booing suggests that audiences are not always sure as to what constitutes the worst, and this vagueness seems to preclude their discharging a unified negative response.

One could, of course, argue that the inability to see the worst is a product of the "untrained eye." Surely, in settings characterized by the systematic evaluation of quality, the best and worst are studied with equal vigor. The issue is easy to explore. Contemporary American society suffers no shortage of performance standards and assessment criteria. In the United States, we grade everything from students to steaks, wines to Web sites, movies to mutual funds to minivans. We are not unique in this regard. Indeed, ranking and grading is a longstanding and widespread historical phenomenon. More than a century ago, sociologist Emile Durkheim noted the importance of standards and rankings. Indeed, Durkheim believed that without such standards human beings would be unable to maintain a functioning social collective. According to Durkheim, human beings are endowed with limitless desire, an aspect of human nature that leaves human beings in a precarious position, for if desires are not capped, frustration may run too high. In Durkheim's words, "One does not advance when one walks toward no goal, or-which is the same thing-when his goal is infinity." Thus, in order for human beings to achieve any productive result, Durkheim believed that a society must provide standards that will limit human desires. "Only then can the passions be harmonized with the faculties and satisfied."

The creation of standards and rankings implies a dual focus-a consideration of both ends of the performance scale. But despite intentions to delineate both the best and the worst of people, places, objects, and events, conceptions of quality often remain an asymmetrical affair. Durkheim himself, while arguing adamantly for a balanced regulatory scale, had little to say about what constitutes the worst. His writings on the subject repeatedly explore examples of appropriate "upper limits" and "rewards," yet his work is nearly silent regarding the itemization of unacceptable quality. His single reference to the worst describes it as a "limit below which [the social actor] is not willingly permitted to fall unless he has seriously bemeaned himself."

Durkheim's inattention to the specification of the worst alerts us to a pattern that persists in present-day thinking. In contemporary contexts, where official standards of quality guide all manners of assessment-manufacturing, healthcare, education, for example-scales of quality often display the same type of asymmetry exhibited in Durkheim's work. Standard makers purport to consider the full range of quality. Yet standards are constructed in such a way as to eliminate the worst people, places, objects, and events from an active frame of reference. Many quality gauges, for example, are guided by "standards of best quality." In such cases, the criteria for production or achievement completely ignore the worst, directing participants solely toward dimensions of excellence. Similarly, many quality gauges operate according to "minimum standards of excellence." To be sure, this technique considers a somewhat broader segment of the quality scale than does the "standards of best quality" approach. However, the notion of minimum standards still forgoes considerations of the worst, as the technique diverts attention from any object or performance that is below a specified cutoff point. In the minimum-standards approach, the very worst quality need not be delineated, for the worst is treated exactly the same as those entities that just miss the stated benchmark.

It appears that the trained eye is not protected from perceptual bias. Indeed, even among agencies designed to anticipate and combat disaster, envisioning the worst often proves an elusive task. The September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington taught us much about this. At the time of the attack, official terror warnings were certainly in the air. In 2000, for example, Congress's General Accounting Office reported that "the threat of terrorism against the United States is an ever-present danger." During the same period, the FAA commissioned a number of secret studies that revealed U.S. airport security to be hopelessly ineffective. Note too that the CIA and other government security agencies reportedly "received information suggesting that Osama bin Laden was increasingly determined to strike on U.S. soil." These agencies were aware that potential terrorists lived and trained in the United States. Indeed, several of the September 11 attackers apparently appeared on various government security watch lists. Despite precedents and clues, our nation's protectors were unable to see the worst approaching. Perhaps former FBI investigator James Kallstrom best captured the intelligence community's collective state of mind. In an interview with WCBS News in New York on the day of the attacks, Kallstrom noted, "We always knew this day was coming; at some level, we knew that something like this could happen ... and yet, no one ever clearly imagined the enormity of the disaster that occurred" (emphasis added).

My personal health crisis, my students' ruminations of the future, audience judgments of quality, formalized performance standards, official responses to national security-each of these instances describes a situation in which people seem unable to conceptualize the worst. Can these failures of imagination-failures that traverse a variety of social profiles and sociocultural settings-really be attributable to psychoemotional forces alone? In this book, I suggest that the answer to this question is no, and I propose an alternative to such individual-oriented explanations.

Failing to conceptualize the worst is not simply a hallmark of particular individuals who cannot or will not imagine calamity, catastrophe, or ruin. The phenomenon proves much broader in scope. The inability to conceptualize the worst happens in corporate boardrooms across the world, when organizational planners routinely prove unable to articulate a worst-case scenario. It happens among scientists and engineers who seem nearly blind to the most negative of experimental outcomes. The inability to conceptualize the worst happens when governments fail to anticipate the most devastating foreign attacks or natural disasters, or when schoolteachers and officials fail to foresee the very worst reactions of troubled students. It happens when couples or newlyweds plan their futures, clearly envisioning the best of fates and typically disregarding signals of danger and destruction. And it happens among risk takers who visualize triumph while all but ignoring potential failure. Indeed, in a broad array of social situations, conceptions of the worst can constitute a gap in a group's or a community's shared frame of reference. For when sociocultural practices focus our sights on excellence, they can simultaneously divert our gaze from the imperfect, the deficient, and the flawed. In this way, the notion of quality-of the way things are-takes on an asymmetrical character, as reality is evaluated using an "unbalanced" conceptual continuum.

Positive Asymmetry as a Dominant Way of Seeing

When I say that an individual, a group or community, an organization, even a society, conceptualizes quality in ways that emphasize the best, I do not mean to accuse that entity of deviant or clouded thinking. Rather, I argue that these skewed visions of quality represent a normal phenomenon-one that I call "positive asymmetry." Positive asymmetry is a powerful convention of quality evaluation. It is a way of seeing that foregrounds or underscores only the best characteristics and potentials of people, places, objects, and events. I argue that this biased perspective is well embedded in many groups and communities. Further, it can be found in a broad array of sociocultural contexts and historical periods. The widespread presence of positive asymmetry stems from both standard patterns of human cognition and central lessons of cultural socialization. In the sections to follow, I carefully unpack this fascinating interaction.

The Asymmetry of the Mind

In reviewing the basic processes involved in the act of thinking, one thing becomes quite clear: some of the human brain's standard operations are characterized by asymmetry. To illustrate this point, let us briefly consider the trail of a thought from beginning to end.

Every minute of every day information enters the mind. That information may enter through one's eyes or ears; it may enter in the form of a scent or touch; it may even present itself as an idea or a memory. Thinking begins when the brain "takes hold" of such information and centers it in conscious awareness-when it sorts and organizes the information in a meaningful way. According to cognitive scientists, this process of apprehending, centering, and organizing data relies largely on two things: the brain's warehouse of representational constructs, or what we typically call "concepts," and the brain's capacity to integrate new information into its warehouse of concepts. Concepts are simply critical to thinking, and thus critical to this discussion, for concepts provide the fuel for evaluation.

We can think of concepts as mental categories. These categories allow human beings to partition or cluster information in the brain according to certain essential attributes or prototypical properties. Cognitive scientists have identified three key ingredients of these vital neural building blocks. First, concepts possess certain "critical features," that is, essential components or definitional attributes. Ludwig Wittgenstein best elaborated this idea. According to Wittgenstein, members of a conceptual category share a "family resemblance." Thus, when we review a concept's members, there may be no single feature that is universal to all of them. Yet the overlap of their features proves so striking and so significant that the members' "blood ties" soon become apparent and unmistakable. A second key ingredient of concepts rests in the rules that relate or connect a concept's critical features. Such "similarity rules" help us to understand how things as different as rocket ships and jaguars can share membership in a category; the rules connect them with reference to elements such as motion and speed. "Distinction rules" represent the third key ingredient of concepts; such rules distinguish one concept's features from those that define other concepts. Distinction rules make clear, for example, that while dogs, cats, chairs, and tables all have legs, dogs and cats are conceptually different from chairs and tables; while dog and cat legs can instigate movement, chair and table legs cannot.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from NEVER SAW IT COMING by KAREN A. CERULO Copyright © 2006 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1 What's the worst that could happen? 1
2 The breadth and scope of positive asymmetry 17
3 Practicing positive asymmetry 72
4 Positive asymmetry and the subjective side of scientific measurement 122
5 Being labeled the worst - real in its consequences? 139
6 Exceptions to the rule 164
7 Emancipating structures and cognitive styles 193
8 Can symmetrical vision be achieved? 233
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