Never Saw It Coming: Cultural Challenges to Envisioning the Worst

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University of Chicago Press, Sep 15, 2008 - Social Science - 336 pages
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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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Review: Never Saw It Coming: Cultural Challenges to Envisioning the Worst

User Review  - Kyle - Goodreads

Cerulo's theory of positive asymmetry is really interesting, and this was my first introduction, and a good one, into the realm of cognitive sociology. It's particularly interesting to note the synthesis of nature vs. nurture in this field. Read full review

Contents

1 Whats 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
Notes
245
References
279
Index
315
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About the author (2008)

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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