Never Saw It Coming

Karen Cerulo’s book Never Saw It Coming: Cultural Challenges to Envisioning the Worst is an interesting sociological book which considers the socio-cultural practices and other factors that influence whether worst case scenarios have a sufficiently prominent place in thinking and planning.

The analysis is mostly focussed on the United States of America. Cerulo analysis proposes that American society has a “skewed vision of quality” which emphasises the best. Related to this she argues that “psychoemotional forces” (p.5) are not the only factors that mean “envisioning the worst may be a more difficult task than it seems” (p.1). The emphasis of the analysis is on the impact of culture on cognition and resulting action. Cerulo also considers the role of social structure in influencing culture and cognition.

I found some the core arguments regarding the core social phenomenon she terms “positive asymmetry” difficult to follow. Positive asymmetry is defined as a “convention of quality evaluation” (p.6) – in which the worst is typically hidden from view – which Cerulo argues is caused by the interaction between “standard patterns of human cognition” and “cultural socialization” (p.6). Positive asymmetry is also described as a biased perspective, a “best-case vision” which over-emphasises images of the best.

If you decide to read this book, then be prepared for a complex mix of cognitive science, social theory and sociological analysis, and case studies. The cognitive science component addresses how the human brain processes ‘inputs’ and how “we evaluate the world around us”. However, Cerulo also contends that culture is crucial:

I argue that culture harnesses the brain’s propensity towards asymmetrical thinking and encodes that process into a much more targeted and specialised experiential bias. In lived experience, groups and communities interpret observations not simply with reference to concept ideals. Rather, those entities consider the world around them with an overwhelming reference to ideal concepts. Thus, asymmetry (the tendency to emphasize only the ideal or best-case example of any concept) is transformed into positive asymmetry (the tendency to emphasize only examples of the best or most positive cases) (p.10, emphasis in original)

Despite the complexity of its hypotheses and arguments, the book is worth a look because a number of other concepts and claims are stimulating and appear to have wider relevance, somewhat independent of the core arguments.

The notion of best-case vision and the associated identified cultural practices (e.g. “rhetorical recasting”) are thought provoking. Cerulo outlines “institutionalised tactics” that she claims “help to distance the worst in a community’s perceptual field” (p.96). This analysis struck me as relevant to argument analysis and construction in environmental debates.

Some chapters also examine the opposite: “negative asymmetry” in which “visions of the worst” are “consistently dominating a community’s attention” (p.164). Two main examples are examined: medical practitioners, and computer operators and programmers.

Cerulo also claims that key emancipating structures in such communities are what enable “cognitive deviance”. That is “certain structural characteristic may emancipate groups and communities from the conventions of positive asymmetry” (p.218).

This section of the book is also quite complex. It examines different setting of action and the associated decision-making structures (e.g. the level of strict centralised control), along with what Cerulo terms the social foundations of cognition.

One aspect that got my attention is the literature that Cerulo points to which examines causes of deviant thinking and the diffusion of ideas, e.g.:

Studies also show that those embedded in structures characterized by social instability and moral heterogeneity are more apt to “think outside the box” and break with established cultural conventions. And structural factors such as social strain and information overload have been linked to schematic disruption. Those located in socially volatile arenas display a greater tendency to stray from routinized cultural and cognitive connections and to establish new ones (p.218)

These ideas point to the field of cultural sociology: “previous work [in cultural sociology]… suggests that certain elements of cognition (symbolization, beliefs, schematic formation and disruption, memory, and so forth) are strongly linked to the structure of the social settings in which thinking occurs” (p.217).

An aspect not addressed in much detail is the potential downsides of being in a community or social group in which visions of the worst dominate attention, though Cerulo notes that “as a rule, negative asymmetry requires that those who practice it remain uncertain and pessimistic” (p.237). Well-known environmentalist Bill McKibben also pointed to other important downsides in in his book Eaarth:

The trouble with obsessing over collapse … is that it keeps you from considering other possibilities. Either you’ve got your fingers stuck firmly in your ears, or you’re down in the basement oiling your guns. There’s no real room for creativity (p.99)

The final chapter addressed a related question of “can symmetrical vision be achieved?”.  The emphasis of the high-level recommendations is on acknowledging biases towards best-case vision, new “evaluative practices”, and addressing structural settings (see the above mentions of emancipating structures). These recommendations are most relevant for addressing positive asymmetry as per Cerulo’s central diagnosis/claims. I also would have liked to have seen some recommendations for specifically addressing negative asymmetry because for some people and communities this bias can be just as big of a problem.

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