Never Saw It Coming: Cultural Challenges to Envisioning the Worst

Never Saw It Coming: Cultural Challenges to Envisioning the Worst

Never Saw It Coming: Cultural Challenges to Envisioning the Worst

Never Saw It Coming: Cultural Challenges to Envisioning the Worst


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


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 worst simply 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 . . .

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