Book Review: Never Saw It Coming

Review of Karen A. Cerulo (2006) Never Saw It Coming: Cultural Challenges to Envisioning the Worst. ISBN 9780226100333

This starts out so well, but wanders into such dubious and frankly mad territory that I can’t recommend it. The theme of the book is how we find it difficult to define or imagine the worst: in particular, worst outcomes such as business failure or loss of a child. Cerulo, a sociologist, argues that this asymmetry is part of our (Western, and USA in particular) culture.

This blindness to the worst has profound costs. In organisations, we have disasters like the Bay of Pigs, Hurricane Katrina or the 9/11 attacks. The banking crisis which occurred since the book was published may be the best illustration of all. At an individual level, people prepare inadequately for severe illness, death or other misfortune. Culturally, she claims, we resist anything that makes us think about the worst.

After a strong first few chapters, including some interesting material on relationship breakups (“I never imagined she might want a divorce”), Cerulo starts shoehorning the evidence into her idea, in a way that is often painful to watch. Despite the fact that World War I is called the “Great War”, it wasn’t actually great, she tells us. The Oscars, celebrating the best films, get far more attention than the Razzies, celebrating the worst. Radio host Art Bell has been ridiculed for interviewing end-of-the-world nuts, and to Cerulo this is an example of our resistance to imagining the worst. This is a ridiculously one-dimensional analysis of why we find such people annoying or risible. She could have made the reverse point: that despite all the ridicule and lack of evidence, fantasies about UFOs coming to end the world are still culturally embedded. Clearly, we often are culturally obsessed with the worst outcome (terrorism, the Y2K bug etc.), and Cerulo has to interpret this as the exception that proves the rule. Because she deals in interpretation rather than controlled experiment, she can make the evidence come out how she likes.

The book’s many references are useful, and from this material Malcolm Gladwell would have written a rip-roaring bestseller. Tavris and Aronson’s “Mistakes Were Made” is a much better introduction to this fascinating subject.

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