Never Saw It Coming: Cultural Challenges to Envisioning the Worst (review)
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Never Saw It Coming: Cultural Challenges to Envisioning the Worst. By Karen A. Cerulo. The University of Chicago Press. 2006. 333 pages. $55 cloth, $29 paper.

Are Americans by nature an optimistic, Pollyannish lot, culturally compelled to look for the silver lining in whatever comes their way? In Never Saw It Coming, Karen A. Cerulo argues that, indeed, across a broad array of arenas – interpersonal interactions, key life events, everyday routines, and in groups and organizations – Americans display an uncanny inability to envision the worst. Cerulo’s central thesis is that this is not simply a natural or a psycho-emotional deficit on the part of individuals, but rather a product of cultural practices and social structures. [End Page 2200]

The theoretical work of cognitive and cultural sociologists is drawn upon to explicate the concept of “positive asymmetry,” a presumed bias in cultural knowledge toward the best things in life. Using a variety of data from a wide array of cultural texts, Cerulo details the specific and patterned ways that the worst is obscured or hidden (eclipsing), kept vague or distant (clouding), or transformed into something positive (recasting). In this age of performance standards, even in cases involving apparently objective quality assessment measures – such as academic grading or scoring of athletic events – she argues that cultural practices serve a myopic function: focusing our vision on excellence and obscuring the negative.

To her credit, the author does engage counter-examples of contexts wherein visions of the worst do dominate attention, constituting examples of “negative asymmetry” that invert the biased perceptual conventions described in earlier chapters. Two such communities are discussed at length – physicians and computer troubleshooters. Both, Cerulo asserts, are oriented to worst-case scenarios, foregrounding physiological disorder or system failure, respectively.

The penultimate chapter compares four case studies: the SARS outbreak (2003), the Y2K threat (2000), the FBI’s handling of the “Phoenix memo” warning of a possible terrorist attack (2001), and the NASA Challenger disaster (1986). The first two are examples wherein worst-case scenarios dominated decision making, leading to clear positive outcomes by averting potential tragedy. The latter two exemplify for the author the costs of positive asymmetry: in eclipsing and clouding visions of the worst, decision makers failed to take adequate preventative measures. The contrasting cognitive styles exhibited in these case studies are not arbitrary, according to Cerulo, but rather relate to the social structure of each setting. The settings within which the SARS and Y2K response occurred depended on what she labels an “emancipating structure” that unmoored decision makers from conventional perceptual patterns impeding visions of the worst. It is the structure of social settings, in interaction with culture and cognition, which explains the differential outcomes of the case studies considered.

It isn’t until the very last chapter that the author considers whether negative asymmetry, or “cognitive deviance” as she alternatively labels it, is the desired perceptual lens. Preceding chapters create the impression that she believes it is. It is only seven pages before the book’s end that mention is made of the costs associated with such inversion of alleged dominant ways of seeing. The position that emerges is that negative asymmetry is valuable to the extent that it counters the excesses of its positive opposite, but the best of all would be the forging of symmetrical vision.

While there is obvious value in the ability to imagine and weigh negative as well as positive possibility, Cerulo ignores a growing body of literature that empirically documents the benefits of optimism and a “can-do” [End Page 2201] ethos. Twenty-plus years of work in the fields of positive psychology and “Appreciative Inquiry,” for example, support the contention that positive expectations positively affect individual health outcomes, educational attainment and business achievement, group success and the stability and flourishing of communities. Further, the author fails to recognize the profound socio-cultural significance of ideals of positive spirit and emotion. This is evident in her dismissive assessment of baseball legend Lou Gherig’s declaration that despite his fatal illness he is “the luckiest man in the world,” and holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl’s reflection that he gained a profound understanding of the...